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.
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:
- Science – Philosophy (including the Philosophy of Science)
- Science – Technology & Engineering
- Science – Politics & Economics
- 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).]