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.

“perhaps culture is now the counterculture” (2, regarding scientism)

Another excerpt from the commencement address recently given to Brandeis University by Leon Wieseltier, long-time literary editor at The New Republic:

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic [one].

Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man…. You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it…. [You] are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

He concludes:

So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are.


“perhaps culture is now the counterculture”: again, the humanities make us human

I’m not terribly familiar with Leon Wieseltier’s writing – he being the literary editor of the New Republic. But I just came across a commencement address he recently delivered at Brandeis that is about as rousingly superb a defence of the humanities as I’ve ever seen.

An excerpt (and one more in the next post):

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience….

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.

scientism: 2) definitions

So first, some preliminary definitions. What do we talk about when we use the word “scientism”?

Very broadly, “scientism” here refers to the view and understanding of “science” effectively as a religion, though without an acknowledgment of this being so. In other words, it is a totalizing approach in which “science” is assumed capable of answering any and all ultimate/ultimately valuable questions. Most crucially for my purposes here: looked to implicitly as the default mode of inquiry regarding human psychology and potential.

More fully:

1) a: “Reason” is viewed as a unitary entity. That is to say, when something called “reason” is deemed to be operating, we are referring to the same thing, practically speaking, no matter what the context.

b: Likewise, “science” is viewed as a unitary entity. It is supposedly the case that what, say, physicists, chemists, and cell biologists do, and how they do it, is basically the same thing that, say, geologists and meteorologists do, which is basically the same thing that researchers into the effects of food and drugs on the body do, and basically the same thing that sociologists, psychologists, and evolutionary theorists do.

c: Finally, these two entities collapse into one. As Jerry Coyne, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, puts it in the article I quote from in the earlier post:

…some spheres of the humanities, namely the social sciences, do give us a way to find knowledge. They do it by using the same techniques as do “real” scientists: observation, experimentation, testing of hypothesis and predictions, rational inquiry, and doubt. In fact, I have long called things like social science, history, Biblical scholarship (as opposed to theology), and archaeology “science broadly conceived.” In fact, I have said that even things like car mechanics and plumbing could be considered forms of science, for when fixing electrical problems or finding leaks, mechanics and plumbers use scientific inquiry.

…I see science as essentially continuous with things like history and archaeology. I see science not as an area of inquiry that depends on a prescribed “scientific method”: as Philip [Kitcher] and others note, there is no one “scientific method.” Science can proceed via induction or deduction, experiment or observation, or any manner of rational inquiry that produces reliable (i.e. generally verifiable and reproducible) knowledge. I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

2) Going a small step further to make this point quite clear, a scientistic attitude believes that the same heuristic expectations – the same principles, basic approaches, forms of verification, outcomes – apply equally to the study of sentience as to non-sentient matter and phenomena. That is to say, that there is nothing ultimately distinct between the study of immaterial thoughts, intentions, emotions, let alone the movement of these within the vast mesh of interconnectedness and interdependence that comprises the human mind, and the study of a subatomic particle, an organic molecule, a rock, a mountain, the atmosphere.

3) Scientism assumes without question that only “scientific” explanations can count as “ultimate,” and ultimately satisfying. No other means or form of expressing the truth of some phenomenon or other can ever have the prestige of a “scientific” formulation.

4) Therefore, as follows on from this, Science likewise and perforce must contain the ultimate source of all values – including those informing its own assumptions and projects. Since it is viewed as providing the only ultimately trustable methods and the only ultimate explanations, it has succeeded in taking the place of religion in more-or-less all of the latter’s traditional functions, and has supplanted the humanities more generally in perceived value.

5) Finally, as a result of the specialization inherent in scientific research and language, we have had no choice but to accept what amounts to a priesthood with whom, in the last analysis, the rest of us are not allowed to disagree at the level of basic view or experimental design, interpretation of results, and so on. Just as the theological pronouncements of the medieval Western Church, delivered in Latin, were indecipherable to all but its hierarchy, today’s scientists speak a language which non-specialists do not understand and generally do not have the time and means to understand. And this has become ever more the case with ever-proliferating specializations and sub-specializations of science: even those with a solid background in each of the major sciences cannot hope to keep up with all the new vocabulary, techniques, and technology that increase year to year.

Therefore, whereas in the past a more general public conversation was possible about wisdom, knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, today, more and more, the average person finds herself silenced with regard to ultimate questions. Instead, we quote the latest headline in the New York Times Science section – about which media reports I have written below – and shrug our shoulders.

Very rapidly we have reached a point of virtual powerlessness and to a certain extent vapidity in our public discourse, in which ordinary sound, considered, deep reason carries little prestige when placed next to the latest splashy headline conveying a presumed increase in knowledge. (Presumed because, as noted in the linked post above: in Seth Mnookin’s report newspapers paid pretty much exactly four times as much attention to original studies as to related (supporting or unsupporting) ones, with 80% of the former being subsequently refuted or unconfirmable as stated. And with one out of 57 articles on the related studies even bothering to mention that the original finding cannot be confirmed as stated!)

This is one of quite a number of effects of scientism upon our culture that will be the focus of subsequent posts.

the humanities make us human

Over a long period of time now, without even particularly realizing it, our culture has been increasingly devaluing the practice and study of the humanities. Whenever the President gets up and talks about education, the areas he mentions which need greater funding and promotion are always specifically “science and technology.” These areas do, it goes without saying, need sufficient support.

But what we’ve forgotten is that it is in fact the humanities which give value in the first place to everything else, very much including science and technology. The humanities contain the purviews, set the parameters, point to what is needed – and what is not. What is sane and nourishing, and what is not.

Recently I came across Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which paints a sad picture of the state of things now and even more so of the direction everything is going. Her book was written as an urgent warning call, and it’s hard to argue with its basic view.

Our dilemma is that a secular culture still needs a source and foundation of values, of wisdom, and science and technology simply can’t provide these. It is the humanities and the arts which do so.

The study of language, philosophy, and religion teaches us how to think clearly and how to assess what is important, and why.

History is among other things a vast set of teachings on the million ways human beings can deceive themselves and cause unspeakable harm, as well as on how progress too arises in the world.

Literature and the arts open the mind and heart; generate greater empathy and understanding of other people and ourselves; teach us how to see more expansively and profoundly; bring all kinds of beauty and new human possibility into the world; and also … make everything else easier to bear.

But as Nussbaum shows, all over the world we are to varying degrees devaluing these the very sources of value itself. In favor of measurable economic growth, pure instrumentality, efficiency.

In so doing we’re losing our way and losing our soul.