Pinker and Wieseltier’s discussion on science and the humanities

There have been several exchanges recently between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic regarding the relationship between science and the humanities. Yesterday (September 26), there appeared this set of responses, which is well worth reading carefully and contemplating. The essay of Wieseltier’s which immediately led to this is here. It too is eminently worth reading. In fact, I consider the latter to be about as lucid, incisive, and elegant a statement as I’ve seen on the subject.

Wieseltier has become a beacon of brilliant sanity in this matter of the domain and role and limitations of Science, and the irreducible centrality of the humanities to human culture.

More about this particular exchange another time.


a response to Sean Carroll concerning scientism (1)

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, recently posted a piece entitled “Let’s Stop Using the Word ‘Scientism.'” His basic argument – which is the same as Jerry Coyne’s and others – is that the word is vague. Like Coyne, he wants us to cease using it, entirely replacing it with criticisms of specific scientific claims or practices, as they come up. Let’s take a closer look at this.

If we are not permitted to use a word like “scientism,” then we are not permitted to voice the idea that the word “science” is capable of ever masking any significant degree of self-deception. We are instead required to view it as possessing some sort of transcendental status that somehow bypasses human mediation. In other words, “Science” must be viewed as simply “The Truth,” a universal epistemological trump card, and basically incorruptible.

(I capitalize the word here, and in certain other instances, when I specifically wish to emphasize the notion of science as an entire “way of seeing,” distinct from either doctrinally religious views on the one hand, or those more broadly humanistic, on the other.)

Since that is so, this argument goes, the notions of dogmatism, extremism, ideology, and religious “fundamentalism” have no parallel in Science as a whole. The paradigms and practices of science require no overarching philosophical View – which would, of course, need to be supplied by humans, and would therefore be fallible. Nor is science capable of radically straying into any kind of cul-de-sac of error. Therefore, it’s unnecessary and even obfuscating to have a word for this danger. The danger doesn’t exist.

That is the argument. In support of it, Sean provides nine examples of how the word “scientism” is used in one instance or another, claiming that these taken together represent a vagueness or lack of specificity. They are worth reproducing:

1) Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
2) Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
3) Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
4) Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude.
5) The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
6) All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
7) Eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
8) Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
9) There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.

Now, is Sean implying that all definitions must be reducible to a single thought, a single sentence? If not, I do not understand his point. Six of these nine statements (points 2-7) all go together, forming, indeed, a philosophical perspective that can most certainly be disputed.

First, let me isolate the three that do not seem fairly placed. I would question Sean’s ability to find more than a few scientists, if any, who would assert that “science is the source of all interesting … facts about the world” (point 1). Maybe such people exist somewhere, but they would be rare. His second adjective “reliable” is maybe a little more in line with the other points, but “interesting” is too vague, I think.

Point 9 contains words difficult to define for these purposes (“natural” and “supernatural”). It is presumably in the list because a segment of people who attack science do so from the perspective of religion, often religious fundamentalism. However, it’s not actually relevant here: notions of what is “natural” or not do obfuscate the question. There are more than enough of us deeply concerned about scientism who don’t make use of a concept of the “natural” in doing so.

And finally point 8 is rarely heard: few people will actually assent to being a reductionist. Certainly reductionism manifests as part of the larger syndrome being referred to by scientism, but the mantle of reductionism is not commonly claimed by scientists.

This leaves points 2-7, which very much do all cohere. A given individual might slightly downplay one or the other, as indeed Sean states. But in practice these can be discussed together as indicating a basic view of reality and valuation of human endeavor (and they can all be easily found in for example Jerry Coyne’s writings). Here’s one way of doing it, with only a few additions for linking purposes (the original points are in bold):

All forms of rational thinking are essentially science. Since rational thinking is our only means for getting at the truth of phenomena, the progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world. For the same reason, the humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude, while philosophy and morality and aesthetics – again following on from the equation of rational thinking and science – should be subsumed under the rubric of science. Being founded and practiced upon rational bases, science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective. And when the humanities and arts (along with “philosophy and morality and aesthetics”), as above, are placed upon firm scientific ground, eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.”

Even though I took more-or-less the entire core of the previous paragraph verbatim from Sean’s own points 2-7 rather than formulating it in my own words, it forms a definition of scientism that isn’t half bad, I would say. In a second post I will try to show the blindspot in this view, and some of the ways in which it is very dangerous.

guess the movie – answer beneath the still

Click to enlarge. (If you’ve seen the movie you will probably get it.)
cymbals, eventually

Correct: it’s from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1956 version). Not one of the great Hitch films, but it has its moments. I like the beginning of the scene in Ambrose Chapel, ie the congregants singing what is surely the most dreadful hymn ever written – a minor-keyed dirge vacantly rendered with all the gusto Calvinist life-hatred can summon, in a church completely devoid of color, furnishings, display. Knowing Hitchcock, surely staged for humor? Either way, it made me laugh.

As for that terribly exciting cymbals part you see – yes, something is destined to happen in that final bar…

the power of simple gestures

A week or so ago I returned to my car in the parking garage downtown to find a little yellow flower tucked in behind the windshield wipers. Startled, I glanced up the rows on each side to see if other cars had been recipients. None had, so my first assumption was that someone I knew had made the gift. But then I realized that currently almost no one would recognize my newishly-purchased car, either by exact model or certainly by license plate number, and the one person who might – namely my landlord, who lives upstairs – is not someone I can imagine doing a thing like that.

So I’m left with a mystery. My car was parked that day at the end of a row, adjacent to the path along which people walk to get from one of the streets bordering the garage to the other. It makes sense then that someone picked the flower somewhere, maybe from just outside the entrance where there’s a little garden, then had the spontaneous idea to offer it to the first car they saw – which would’ve been mine.

In any case, I was truly touched by the gesture, and all the more because it came from someone who didn’t know who I was. So much of the time we find ourselves interpreting events as gratuitous negative judgments upon us – well, or at least I do… Here suddenly, out of the blue, was a gift from the universe – precisely because neither giver nor receiver knew the other. There was something so free, irreducible, and pure about it.

When I returned home I put the flower in a glass of water and set it on my desk, where it thrived for nearly a week. And every time it caught my eye it made me smile.

These little actions of the heart really matter in the world and we should all do them more often! I bow to the person who performed this one, whoever and wherever you are…
big-yellow-flower-1u-1(image courtesy of

“listening to the bands that made us cry”

Oh all right then, since I am still awake and listening to these guys (Tears for Fears)… The first and last songs from “The Seeds of Love” (1989). First up, “Woman in Chains”:

… men of stone, men of stone …
well I feel
deep in your heart there are wounds time can’t heal
and I feel
somebody somewhere is trying to breathe…

And “Famous Last Words”:

hand in hand we’ll do and die
listening to the bands that made us cry
we’ll have nothing to lose
we’ll have nothing to gain
just to stay in this real-life situation…

1 year anniversary – and a dose of joyous, radiant pop

It turns out it was a year ago today that I typed the words “your heart is the big box of paints” into the subject heading of my first ever post. So … happy birthday to the old journal!

I’ve also been idle for over a month and aim to remedy this with more regular posting again.

Around the time of the last post I was driving from Vermont to Illinois to visit my mother, as I do twice a year. In the past I had a sound system which enabled me to connect up my iPod, so I would create a very large playlist and that would do me for both journeys. My new car has a nice sound system but no Aux jack. Instead it has a 6 disc CD-player, so I made a virtue of necessity and before leaving grabbed about 60-odd CDs from my collection of around 500-600, focusing on ones I hadn’t listened to in a long while. This ended up working really well. Each morning I’d put a new batch of 6 in there from all different genres, and it lasted the whole day.

Probably the single biggest (re)discovery was “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending,” from Tears for Fears. This was released in 2004 and represents their reunion. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith had parted acrimoniously after “The Seeds of Love” (1989), Roland then releasing two further CDs under the same name (ie, Tears for Fears) – “Elemental” (1993) and “Raoul and the Kings of Spain” (1995). I’d certainly listened to this several times before because I remembered loving several of the tracks, but I wasn’t prepared for how completely gorgeous practically the whole album is, or its sumptuous, impeccable production. It knocked me sidewise.

I’d just left Jamestown, NY where I’d stopped for lunch, and that happens to be around the place on the trip home where I feel the landscape really starts opening out and becoming beautiful again. It was such a joy to have this CD come on at that moment, and I’ve been listening to it ever since in fact.

I would say about 7 of the 12 tracks on it are pure bliss, to the point where they just recycle in my head throughout the day, one after another, then back again. Unquestionably their best album – and after “The Seeds of Love,” this is truly saying something. Big yay and big love to Roland and Curt.

Reminding me of the time I found myself sitting at a cafĂ© table in Bath next to Roland and a friend of his. What does one do in a situation like that? His songs (he has always been the main songwriter) had been part of “the soundtrack of my life” as is said, growing up. I was alone reading and could hear bits of their conversation – but should I be listening?!

Then it turns out we get up at the same time and are standing round the till waiting to pay. Damn, there’s Roland Orzabal about a foot away from me: what do I do? I kind of want to, like, do a full prostration or something … you know?! But instead I content myself with turning to him and saying, as nonchalantly and non-embarrassingly as possible, something like: “hey man, I just wanna thank you for all the music – it’s meant so much.”

He kind of nodded, looked a little … embarrassed. I thought: oh god, oh well.

Getting my hair cut the next time, chatting away, I happened to mention the incident, and my hairdresser then says: “Roland? oh yeah, I cut his hair actually.” …

What do I choose to embed here from this CD? Well, how about these two – for now anyway…

And the other, well, I guess it’s gotta be my favorite of all from the album – “Secret World.” Way back when, talking music with my friend Tim, one of us would say of a really special song that it should be blasted from the tallest building in every town in England at midday, every day. These would always be the most heart-opening ones, and they don’t come around all that often, but about 40 minutes out of Jamestown, NY a month ago … I rediscovered another. May it put a big smile on your face –

and pay no attention
to the cradle or the grave