After an enjoyable 2-month break, I find myself again mentally preparing for a fall semester of teaching. My classes almost invariably begin with a discussion intended to clarify the differences between opinions, reasons, and objective evidence. During these lectures, I also offer a contrast between what is commonly regarded as science, versus the more pejorative label of scientism. It is therefore timely that Steven Pinker would just last month write an essay related to this topic.
Pinker’s article, titled Science Is Not Your Enemy, is a polemic defense of what he calls ‘science and a dismissal of what critics call ‘scientism.’ In short, he argues that the term scientism is confused and meaningless, suggesting that critics use the term in a vague sense to undermine science. While Pinker has some worthy though seemingly obvious points, I find his essay to be conceptually problematic. He appears to conflate the terms science and scientism, and to argue that we should redefine the latter from a pejorative label, to one that represents an ideal worth striving toward. The irony seems to escape Steven Pinker, but I will try here to make clear the issues at stake.
According to Pinker, science has a very long history. In the first paragraph, Pinker claims that the great thinkers of the enlightenment were not only scientists, but more specifically, budding cognitive neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists. Anyone remotely familiar with either the history of ideas or the boarders of intellectual disciplines should see this as an odd claim. To be clear, Pinker seemingly wants to define science so broadly that it would apparently encompass philosophy and the rational political discourse that characterized the enlightenment period. Moreover, his overconfidence in the correctness of his own favored scientific paradigms (i.e. cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology) cause him to imagine a steady and linear history of scientific progress – one that conveniently leads to the theories he espouses. Consequently, Pinker assumes that if it were possible to converse with the dead, or travel backward in time, he would not only find kinship with enlightenment thinkers, but that he would be the pedagogue, and they his eager pupils:
“When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block.”
Again, it appears ironic that in his introductory paragraph of an essay intended to dismiss claims of scientism, that he would espouse a view of ‘science’ seemingly consistent with the charge. If Pinker were to go back in time, I believe he would indeed find some consilience with Thomas Hobbes. But it is unlikely that he would find much commonality with other enlightenment thinkers, including Baruch Spinoza, who I suspect would on the contrary have far more to teach Pinker – at least with regard to understandings about what it means to be human. The reason being that science is neither a single territory, nor a perfectly linear trajectory of accumulated ‘evidence.’ This is especially the case when we are talking about the science of human minds – where accusations of scientism are most common, and in many cases, I believe justified.
Differentiating Science from Scientism
At many points in his essay, Pinker suggests that accusations of scientism are simply attacks on science. Construed as such, he spends some time (quite unnecessarily), outlining the ways in which science has led to unquestionable progress. However, I suspect he is preaching at this point to an almost universal choir. Who could doubt the fact that our use of science has enabled an unprecedented accumulation of knowledge, or that it might give us cause to hope that we could someday find solutions to the many problems that plague human society?
Yet Pinker is regretful that the humanities at times resists or questions scientific knowledge claims. He laments the fact that committed scientists are often accused of determinism, reductionism, positivism, and worst of all – “scientism.” Pinker confidently asserts that there can be no such thing as ‘too much’ science, and moreover, that it is “indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.” Pinker thus concludes that science is a universal good with near ubiquitous application, whereas the term scientism is largely unintelligible if it is meant to describe something other than science. Contra Pinker, I will argue that it is indeed both intelligible and useful, and attempts to discredit its use only serve to protect sloppy scientists (including Pinker) from well deserved criticism.
Let us first be clear, that science is not an all-encompassing program that annexes other knowledge enterprises in order to claim them as its own territory. There is a distinction, for example, between science and philosophy (or for that matter any of the humanities). While philosophy entails an epistemological approach that uses reason as a critical source of knowledge or justification, science embraces some form of empiricism, asserting that evidence must be derived from observations by the physical senses. While the two certainly overlap, they are by no means synonymous, and understanding the difference will help to understand what critics mean when they accuse scientists of scientism. While I agree that the term is often ambiguous, I would summarize scientism as follows:
- The belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview.
- The uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods of the physical sciences to inappropriate fields of study or investigation (e.g. human minds, morality, politics).
- An over-confidence in the impartiality of science and the belief that it is ahistorical.
- An overreliance on empirical data, while rational assumptions regarding the justification or interpretation of the ‘evidence’ go unchallenged, resulting in a religious-like adherence to an ideological view that masquerades as objective science.
Pinker talks about “Scientism in the good sense…”, going on to say that “the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.” But to be clear, there is no scientism ‘in the good sense’ – it is always pejorative. And here he is not describing scientism, but science, as we would hope for it to be conducted. No one will acknowledge practicing scientism – it is a label that we ascribe to those who lack humility, caution, critical thinking, the ability to be aware of and challenge their own assumptions, and to know when an empirical scientific method may be limited or useless.
Let me give some brief examples of scientism in action. Scientism is when Sam Harris confidently states, as he does in his book The Moral Landscape, that questions of morality are nothing but “questions about the well-being of conscious creatures,” which can be factually determined by science… a position that he has admittedly come to without reading the work of moral philosophers, because he is “convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics’, ‘deontology’, ‘noncognitivism’, ‘antirealism’, ‘emotivism’, etc directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe” (see Kenan Malik’s critique of Harris). Scientism is also at work when Pinker asserts that “the mind is what the brain does,” without seriously engaging in any philosophical problems with this argument (see The Mind does not Reduce to the Brain).
It is also scientistic thinking to suppose, as Pinker does in this essay, that science can answer “the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.” True science may tell us about what we are, insofar as it attempts to describe the biological animal that is homo sapiens, but it cannot tell us about who we are because this entails personhood, which is symbolic (e.g. non-material). For the same reasons, an objectively-oriented materialistic science cannot help us define meaning or purpose, as Camus so expressively illustrates, in his attempt to reconcile his existence with the supposedly ‘scientific’ worldview:
“You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, p. 25).”
Thus, as I have described elsewhere, science will in the end rely on some rationally-derived theory that in turn justifies and organizes the objective data or ‘evidence.’ This is not to take anything away from science, though we should indeed note that we have in a sense ‘changed fields’ – theoretical science (especially as related to the ‘science of the mind’), is effectively doing philosophy. It is when we forget this point, or arrogantly suggest that philosophy owes allegiance to science, that we are at greatest risk of minimizing the use of logic and deductive reasoning, which is a hallmark of scientism.
Returning to Pinker, we can see that he again blurs the boundaries of science when he asserts that “the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.” I should not have to point out that such claims are inherently scientistic. While Pinker is correct to say that science can help us de-bunk religious and superstitious beliefs, or objective truth claims, it cannot replace them as a subjective “guide” for defining moral values. Science might help lift the veil of illusion, but it then leaves us in a waterless desert. And it is within this waterless desert that science is at risk of becoming its own illusion – when it is permitted to morph into what I am here describing as scientism. Science can be a yardstick, but it cannot be adduced as compass or guide. Science can help us objectively measure our approximations toward particular goals or meaningful values, but it cannot help us define them. Values come from conscious embodiment, cultural embeddedness, and human reasoning… the latter of which is most accurately construed as belonging to the realm of the humanities, including philosophy and ethics.
Pinker likewise suggests that “… the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” However scientific facts cannot ‘militate toward’ or ‘defend against’ anything – though people certainly can, once they have collectively defined a value worth protecting. Pinker seems to think that science naturally supports some form of utilitarian ethics (versus, for example, a deontological approach). However, this is a problematic claim. For starters, what does science advocate when consequences conflict with important values – such as notions of justice? And how are we to settle on a definition of ‘maximizing human flourishing?’ Does ‘human flourishing,’ for example, entail physical or psychological well-being? If it is both, what do we do when once is in conflict with the other? Or when the flourishing of one group of people comes only at the cost of the other? More often than not, appeals to ‘scientific facts,’ in instances where they hold little weight, will involve uncritical acceptance of a particular ideological stance – a hallmark of scientism.
Overall, I find Pinker’s defense of ‘science’ wholly unnecessary; science is not under attack, as should be evident by the willingness of European and American governments to spend billions of dollars in the next 10 years on the human BRAIN Initiative. If anything, it is the humanities that are under attack, with arrogant and dogmatic empiricists encroaching on their turf while seeking to redefine their area of study through over-zealous reductionism (e.g. neuro lit crit, evolutionary political science, evolutionary law, etc.). While cross-discipline research is often helpful, we must not be so eager to blur epistemological approaches, and must be aware of and have some respect for paradigmatic boundaries, while carefully testing them from time to time. Pinker instead seems to advocate a blurring of boundaries and an annexation of other epistemological approaches by that of science:
“Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.”
There are many problematic assumptions in the above quote. For example, what does it mean to say that “art, culture, and society” are the “products of human brains?” Does he mean that these things are caused by brains, or that that they simply necessitate having one? If he means the former, I would advise him to read my summary criticizing such views; if he means the latter, then in what way does the objective study of human brains provide ‘more explanatory depth?’ I believe these reductionist approaches obscure more than they enlighten. And given the topic of this essay, I find Pinker’s overall argument full of irony. In his defense against claims of scientism, he presents several arguments that are indeed scientistic in nature. This should not be surprising given his preferred paradigms of cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology, though it is here that science abandons reason and is at risk of becoming scientistic.