Pinker vs Wieseltier III #Scientism

It’s almost a couple of weeks since Pinker responded with round III of his debate with Wieseltier over whether the humanities have a genuine claim of “scientism” against certain factions of the science community, or not.

[I’ve commented twice on this debate, and mentioned it in several other posts too. Most recently the post on the value of ethics in science, but also previously here and here.]

The thrust of Pinker’s argument in round III seems to be this – what I call the “good fences make good neighbours” debate :

“Why should either discipline stay inside Wieseltier’s sterile rooms? Does morality have nothing to do with the facts of human well-being, or with the source of human moral intuitions? Does political theory have nothing to learn from a better understanding of people’s inclinations to cooperate, aggress, hoard, share, work, empathize, or submit to authority? Is art really independent of language, perception, memory, emotion? If not, and if scientists have made discoveries about these faculties which go beyond received wisdom, why isn’t it for them to say that these ideas belong in any sophisticated discussion of these topics?” Pinker.

The point of the “good fences make good neighbours” argument is this. The rooms are NOT sterile. The rooms are NOT bounded by impenetrable walls that prevent each discussing the other across the garden fence, nor less discourage each to visit the other domain to participate and share. Far from it.

Cross participation is of course thoroughly encouraged. Boundaries represent working definitions, based on “good practice and established precedent” and of course boundary disputes lead to redrawing of boundaries and evolution of working definitions when necessary and agreed. And of course that healthy exchange and dialogue means both parties benefit from learning to understand the other, and acquiring knowledge that may benefit their own domain. The point is the working boundaries do exist, and what each party MUST is recognise which domain they’re in at any time, recognising the variable rules of engagement wherever they are currently. My rules on my side of the fence, it’s just being neighbourly. The boundaries exist in the sense that they represent a distinction between different rules of engagement, different rules for what counts as evidence and rational argument.

The key thing is neither side has the monopoly of rules across the whole combined domains, nor does either have any privileged position in the rules whereby working boundaries are defined and re-defined. It’s for neither “side” to say, rather for the conversation to enable the working distinctions to evolve, and by bringing ideas across from one domain to the other to reap the benefits of eco-diversity and avoid sterile in-breeding in any one domain.

Most of the rest of Pinker’s argument just seems spurious to me, not wrong, just not relevant to the point of the accusation. He also makes a great deal out of Wieseltier’s confining science to the “empirical” – but this I fear is just a talking past each on what the other means by empirical. The empirical in science has an objective repeatability, whereas in reality a good deal of the empirical involves subjective experience – a philosophical debate as old as the hills, but resolved from most practical perspectives by moving away from the focus on the subjects and objects. I’d like to see anyone highlight if I’m missing a point, specifically.

The accusation of scientism is applied to those scientists who believe in (and insist in applying) the rules of science in the domains of human value. We can obviously debate exactly who claims which rules, and in doing so refine our boundary definitions, but here I’m talking about defining rationality in terms of objectivity and logic testable by falsification – the essence of what make science science – whilst acknowledging many other aspects of quality and value, creativity and inspiration shared by science and any number of non-scientific “disciplines”. In fact we could argue with different narrow and broad definitions exactly which disciplines might claim to be sciences and which claim to be humanities. It’s part of the same debate of course, and everyone prefers to back a winner, but the point is the boundaries, the distinctions do exist, even if their only reasons for existence are a manageable sense of order – authoritative precedent against which to evolve progressive change. There aren’t really two “sides” here but multiple domains of varying shades and combination of applicable rules.

Clearly life would be much simpler if all domains agreed the same rules of engagement in what counts as rational argument and evidence for knowledge, decisions and predictors of actions. But the fact is the core value-neutral rules of scientific rationality do not apply to all domains of human value, at least not simply because science says they can be. Human values are not all reducible to science. To claim otherwise is scientistic (by definition, so no reason to argue defensively against that).

Significantly these distinctions matter between the following, though obviously the fourth is least contentious:

  1. Science – Philosophy (including the Philosophy of Science)
  2. Science – Technology & Engineering
  3. Science – Politics & Economics
  4. Science – Arts & Humanities in general

Of course, in responding to Pinker, these things have much “to do with” each other at many points, it’s just that the distinctions none-the-less matter greatly. None is totally reducible to any of the others.

[Post Note – Interestingly, having written the above in response to Pinker, I realise that Wieseltier’s round III response is pretty much the same “good fences make good neighbours” argument. Funny, I’m also having trouble getting scientists to see that there is actually a case here – some either disagree, or agree to disagree, but no recognition of the actual point. The scientism is Maxwell’s scientific neurosis, a denial that there are any rules of knowledge and values beyond science. To repeat – scientism by definition. That much cannot even be open to debate, even if science is entitled to argue the maximum scope amenable to scientific analysis and rationale. To start from the assumption that everything is not just fair-game but game-over, unless  demonstrated by conclusive argument and evidence otherwise, is to miss the point that their rules of objective evidence and logical argument are those of science. Not a valid argument, since it presumes its own conclusion. A Catch22 as I’ve called it many times before.]

[PPS – re-reading, I notice Pinker actually opened with this:

Leon Wieseltier writes,

“It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art.”

I [Pinker] reply:

“It is not for Leon Wieseltier to say where science belongs. Good ideas can come from any source, and they must be evaluated on their cogency, not on the occupational clique …. blah, blah, blah … “

Just look at that word – “clique” – a pejorative value-laden word if ever I heard one. Up to “cogency” no reasonable scientist or humanist could possibly disagree, so why don’t we stick to the point constructively – already elaborated above – rather than introduce disingenuous rhetorical smoke-screens. The trouble these days, is that once people get beyond the 140 character smart-ass sound-bite limit, the medium seems to be the 3 or 4 page essay full of examples of straw-men that the original interlocutor never even suggested. And to suggest them back in response is disrespect to your opponent.

So “cogency” – your word Mr Pinker, let’s work with that, it’s as good as any – to summarise the qualities of a given argument. As I (and Wieseltier) have said already, this simply begs the question of cogency according to who’s standards, the standards of who’s domain. This is why the domains matter – it’s not that they are no-go areas, it’s to accept the possibility that their standards of cogency might not be the same. For science to simply say – the standards of science are the measure of cogency for all world domains is scientistic (the definition of scientistic) according to those who see domains other than science. So let’s debate in a few sentences – sticking to the point – what qualities might constitute cogency in one domain but not the other, rather than insult the intelligence of your interlocutor.

I already made a start: Scientific cogency depends on:

  • objectivity of evidence, and
  • logical relations between those objects, and
  • assertions built on that logic that are falsifiable, and
  • falsifiability that is either directly empirical, or
  • falsifiability that is related by chains of logical reason to knowledge that is.

How’m’a doin’ ? Of course the whole scientific enterprise depends, like any of the humanities, on many other less-objectifiable aspects of human interaction, imagination, creativity and ingenuity, but let’s stick to the cogency of what makes an argument or knowledge scientific (or not).]

7 thoughts on “Pinker vs Wieseltier III #Scientism”

  1. While there’s nothing wrong with the “good fences” approach, it is limited in what it can do against scientism. The humanities can, and do, have “good fences” with science — just not with scientism. The difficulty is in recognizing the difference.

    If science recognizes the fence between, say, “morality and the facts of well-being,” as in your quote from Pinker, then as a good neighbour it must remain respectful of what it cannot say or do on the other side of that fence. When science fails to do this, it becomes scientism. the question then is, what kind of intrusion is the fence meant to prevent?

    To advise on an ethical course because nature includes “the facts of well-being” seems reasonable. But what if a scientist is concerned about the “fact” that there is no God, or that religion is supersitious nonsense, or that we are descended by a series of random accidents from monkeys, and have no purpose other than to preserve and promote our own individual selves, and leave plenty of babies? When such a scientist then rushes to the rescue by invoking “the facts of well-being” to justify economies of greed and injustice as the scientifically correct evolutionary course for humanity, however inconvienent it may occasionally be for individual humans — has that scientist improperly crossed the fence?

    Sometimes one wants to look at the “facts” that are salient to the scientist, and one can certainly have long and interesting discussions about what constitutes a “fact.” But at other times one simply wants to look at the effect of the intrusion. If the scientist is telling us, based on whatever facts are deemed salient, that we have no free will, that the universe is meaningless, that uncaring inanimate matter is the only reality — and, on the moral side of the fence, that we had better get over any illusions about it! — then I for one would like to say that this scientist has gone too far, and is now doing damage in places he dos not belong.

    If we can agree on this, then the problem is how to make that case to the scientist who has gone too far. How do we explain the need for meaning? Clearly we cannot do it in the terms of the scientist’s ontology, which has removed meaning by the root. We must advocate a different ontology than matter bouncing around randomly, or whatever subtleties have been lately introduced to this fundamental model. Our ontology must somehow include meaning, and caring, and free will.

    We can explore the ontologies of meaning suggested by the phenomenologists, to take one example, or those suggested by process philosophers, or existentialists, or pragmatists. But it would be wrong to assign these ontologies primacy, just as it is wrong to assign primacy to the ontology of inanimate matter. Each ontology has its purposes and its proper applications. The scienist must understand that an alternative humanistic ontology is not meant to encroach on the highly effective ontology of science, which has well proven its value in the physical domain. It is meant as a suggestion better suited to the human domain.

    It is at this point that we can resume our talk of good fences. For example, is an applied science of human management, based on principles of biochemistry or behaviourist psychology, an acceptable way to address “the facts of well-being,” or is it potentially humiliating, or dehumanizing, or too depressingly cynical to implement in good conscience? At least we know that’s where the fence is.

  2. Hi AJ,

    Thanks for the detailed comment, I agree with what you say. Just for the record, re your opening para, I was intending to highlight the (necessary) “good fence” between science itself and humanities. The “scientism” is the denial position whereby science refuses to acknowledge any valid boundaries.


  3. Hi, Ian. Thanks for your response.

    I meant to focus the distinction between science and scientism on Pinker’s remarks themselves, concerning “morality and the facts of well being” and so on. It’s tempting to approve his suggestions as examples of respectful science. I wanted to unpack them a little, to show how easily scientism can lurk behind such innocuous statements. This is what I meant when I said that the difficulty is in recognizing the difference.

    For example, I worry that his rhetorical question “Does political theory have nothing to learn from a better understanding of people’s inclinations to cooperate, aggress, hoard, share, work, empathize, or submit to authority?” could easily be abused to justify instumentalism in political advertising and decision-making. What we know about people’s inclinations must be tempered by whether people are viewed as _objects_ to be manipulated, or _subjects_ to be respected. This is the sort of question that can go completely missing in greedy reductionism, causing the advocates of scientism to be unaware of certain fences, much less disrespectful of them.

  4. Ah yes, it seems we are very well aligned on this topic of scientism – and greedy reductionism – creeping unnoticed into would-be science itself. (PS not sure I know who you are – do you have any on-line bio?) Great to have the dialogue either way.

  5. Sorry, I don’t have much of an online presence. You might be able to dig stuff by James Owens or Jim Owens out of Usenet via the Wayback machine. I also comment sometimes at Dawg’s Blawg as “forgot to buy tinfoil.” I’m thinking of starting a blog; I just need to figure out what to say exactly. I can see we have a lot of ideas in common.

    To give you a bit of background, I’ve just retired from a career as a technical writer in the fields of telecommunications, networking, and virtualization. I have a B.A. in Philosophy from McGill (1979), and I’ve done a lot of independent reading since then. Currently I’m reading Dewey’s _Experience and Nature_.

  6. Thanks Jim. Ultimately all dialogue depends on knowing the person on the other end. Much appreciated.

    And thanks for reminding me to re-read this post / thread. It was partly responsible for me drafting a more complete “good fences” essay – the general point about distinctions in *any* ontology and the specific science vs the rest debate. Never did get that draft complete for publication.


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