I’ve adopted the term “scientism” for the subject – the problem topic – of my agenda here in maybe the last 5 years or so? Previously I’ve called it scientific fundamentalism, or maybe obsessive objective reductionism, Maxwell’s scientific neurosis, things of that ilk, since I started this blog 13 years ago. Before that I never really gave it a name – it was just a nagging doubt that there was a deep problem going unrecognised in the whole of human life, well beyond science. A problem I had difficulty even articulating, until the blog gave me a vehicle in which to practice. Scientism’s become the fashionable term for the problem, particularly since the more “shrill” new-atheist humanists – supported by celebrity scientists and comics – turned it into a front-page and social-media war. Amen to that.
Interestingly it was one of those “wow” moments of revelatory epiphany where I first used the term in 2008. (Good guess, 5 years ago.) I was actually using the term against myself, having previously been pursuing the problem of science within science, and recognising that as the error in itself.
This piece “Crimes Against Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier in New Republic I first looked at when tweeted by Tiff Jenkins a couple of weeks ago, and tweeted a positive holding response. Decided to do a thorough read again today. Essentially I agree with every word in Wieseltier’s piece, and have only one reservation.
As Wieseltier says, Pinker’s (baseless, and breathtakingly arrogant) argument can be summed up as:
There is nothing wrong with the humanities that the sciences cannot fix.
Wieseltier says a lot more – both assertions and reference arguments – so I’d recommend a thorough read and digest by anyone taking the debate seriously. As I say, I really have only one reservation – Wieseltier’s idea of casting humanities and science into distinct “domains” is too much like Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” much rejected by Dennett (with whom I mostly agree, like I mostly agree with Pinker and Harris). The boundaries of science and the humanities are indeed porous and open to cross-border investigations, as the definitions of the border evolve on both sides. Good fences make good neighbours, they say, so yes “working” definitions of boundaries are useful if not essential, but simply drawing them up as some kind of cease-fire line is not the solution, an agreement to disagree about the value of the other. Mutual human respect must be shared well into “enemy” territory both sides of the line. (A large part of Wieseltier’s argument is to point how little science seems to actually respect the wisdom, intelligence and intentions of those on the humanities side of the divide.)
Science was originally conceived as nature by those natural philosophers that pre-date science itself and the human pursuit of knowledge has gone hand in hand with the evolution of science . And indeed human nature is by definition part of nature, but that does not make the humanities in any way a subset of science as if science were by definition an explication for the whole of nature. Science simply has no privileged position when it comes to knowledge of humanity within the cosmos, not even the overview of all applied empirical knowledge. In my view rather than seeing science and the humanities as mutually exclusive domains, they must be seen as complex interlinked patterns in the whole of nature. That whole may never be a single unifying theory of everything, certainly not in any causally reductive sense. To be unifying any “theory” needs to encompass more than science.
Particularly interesting, taking the topic beyond any science vs humanities “defensive” debate, well beyond any science vs religion “offensive” war, is that amongst the enlightened, the problem of scientism is recognised within scientific academia itself. Some scientists may believe that the philosophy of science is dead, without value, and that science is self-describing toward potential completion, but philosophers of science see that what science is missing are “values”. Ditto in hard to classify realms like economics. We all do well to remember:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.