The Spectacular Arrogance & Ignorance of Steven Pinker’s Scientism

by A. Jay Adler on August 8, 2013
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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

What is one to make of an essay seeking to bridge a purported divide of understanding between science and the humanities – in which the humanities are said to fear and mistrust the sciences – that opens with the sentence, “The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists”? The essay goes on to list “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith.”

There is no mention in Steven Pinker’s “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” after or at any point, of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire, Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Hayden, Bach, Mozart, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael.

If one were to claim that by “Reason and Enlightenment” was meant those rational philosophical and experimental and empirical enterprises that would not properly include this latter list of names, then Pinker’s opening claim would be tautologous and therefore pointless and meaningless to his argument. If he was suggesting more broadly, as he should have been, the development of the modern human being and world – or as Harold Bloom titled it in his magnum opus on Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human - then the absence of those names glares like a dark star.

What is one to make of an essay that purports to address the the fears and flaws of the humanities, but that devotes most of its time to countering the most primitive magical thinking of old religions, thus promoting such a conflation?

What is one to make of an essay in defense of science that does not state that there is no empirical evidence or reasoned argument for a belief that “the laws governing the physical world … have … goals that pertain to human well-being,” but that claims instead that we know that these laws have no such goals?

What is one to make of an essay that states,

We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small,

yet that shows the presumption above and demonstrates otherwise a complete ignorance of  what the humanities in their essence are as a human expression and what elements of experience they address?

What is one to make of an essay that waxes enthusiastically that

[s]cience has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space,

but that takes only the notice of a phrase in the existence of the visual arts and no notice of the profound distinction, and meaning to be found, in beauty that is, precisely, a human creation?

What is one to make of an essay that in seeking to gain the support of humanists for science, offers as examples of what rejuvenating contributions science might make to the humanities enterprises that reduce the humanities to mere subject for empirical study.

What is one to make of an essay that evinces not the least visible recognition of a difference between a human being and a humanoid, between human experience and humanoid operation?

Nothing. Simply nothing.

AJA

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28 comments

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

bdill101 August 27, 2013 at 9:05 am

I don’t think either of us were talking about the mere existence of human life.

I am not going to attemt to define this hypothesis with laser-like precision because it is essentially a vague superstition along the same lines as astrology. Basically I am just needlessly repeating what Pinker wrote, but when I observed the improbability of “human centrality” to the universe, my point was that it is highly improbable that there are laws governing the physical world [have] goals that pertain to human well-being. I can’t be any more precise than that. These things are inherently vague, abstract and without evidence—and that’s precisely why they’re improbable.

The hypothesis that the laws of nature have goals that pertain to humans should not immune from the logic that applies to other far-fetched hypotheses (e.g. astrology, virgin births, God, Zeus, spiderman, fairies, sky pixies, flying spaghetti monsters, teapots orbiting Mars). This means that if something is, logically speaking, vastly improbable (which in this case I believe is), then nobody should be chastised for saying they “know” that it is not possible.

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A. Jay Adler August 27, 2013 at 2:39 pm

You continue to argue against a straw man and to ignore my broader and deeper considerations.

“These things are inherently vague, abstract and without evidence—and that’s precisely why they’re improbable.”

You mean like so many of the laws, principles, and theories of physics before we had evidence of or could conceive them: the strong force, the predictions of special relativity, quantum mechanics?

“it is highly improbable that there are laws governing the physical world [have] goals that pertain to human well-being.”

What do you mean by “pertain” to? You mean there is gravity just so people don’t float away? Is that what it would mean for a law of nature to “pertain” to “human well-being”? Do you really even mean the laws of nature or do you mean actually the very universe itself? That it lacks purpose? And how does one scientifically investigate for purpose? What would a purpose be?

I’ve raised these kinds of issues now twice before and you completely ignore them because you are apparently unprepared to address this topic beyond the extraordinarily narrow range to which you have reduced it. You repeatedly offer the most puerile examples and characterizations of any non-scientific mode of thought – “vague superstition” – and now you add a private definition of knowledge based on the vastness of the (im)probability of a proposition, the parameters of “vast” undefined and in this case undetermined. And all this because your contempt for humanistic thought is apparently so great that you have committed yourself to arguing no less than that we know that the laws governing the physical world have no goals that pertain to human well-being.

Enjoy your box.

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bdill101 August 28, 2013 at 6:39 am

“Goals” is really the important word in that phrase, Goals require an intention, motivation, or objective. We know that (it is highly probable) that nature does not have intentions or motivations, it is more like a complex web of interconnected phenomena. So yes, I stand by my point that it is impossible that the laws of nature have “goals” that pertain to human well-being, or anything for that matter. It’s not really that complicated.

What would a purpose be? Do you want me to just pick something out of the sky? Any proposition is unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific. Hell, you can see religion or astrology for some examples of “purposes”, I suppose, but science won’t help you.

I disagree that thinking scientifically is placing oneself inside a “box”. Science has endless possibilities. Some things are more probable than others, of course, but science never stops advancing and uncovering new truths. Once you start thinking magically (e.g. not on the basis of evidence and logic), then you’re risk creating your own subjective “box”, closing yourself off to the real world. But hey, that’s just me.

PS:
It seems like I need to provide you with a glossary of terms (“pertains”, “knowledge”, “goals”, “vast”) when making a very basic point. Since this is a comment board—and I’m not writing a book, manifesto or dictiorary—when in doubt please just use the plain meaning of words (e.g. common sense). Or else I can just start asking how you define half the garbage you’re spouting.

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bdill101 August 28, 2013 at 7:09 am

I’m also actually surprised you take issue with the relationship between probability and knowledge. Probability, by definition, is the likelihood that something is true. We “know” things because of their high degree of probability, which we can verify or refute through the scientific method. This isn’t some exotic concept.

John Locke: “When the probability is high enough to meet certain tests which have been established, we may say that the beliefs which are supported by it may rightfully be classified as knowledge.”

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A. Jay Adler August 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

‘John Locke: “When the probability is high enough to meet certain tests which have been established, we may say that the beliefs which are supported by it may rightfully be classified as knowledge.”’

What is the test that has been established for the probability of meaning? (I know you don’t have clue what I’m talking about.)

We’re talking about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life: ‘It’s not really that complicated.’

You’re really priceless.

‘I disagree that thinking scientifically is placing oneself inside a “box”‘

Of course, thinking scientifically isn’t placing oneself inside a box. It’s you.

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bdill101 August 28, 2013 at 8:53 am

When did I say the universe was not complicated? I encourage you to retrace our exchange: you’re endless demands for clarification and word meanings are curious when I have made my point in blindingly simple terms (e.g. it is improbable that laws of nature have goals for humans). I assume you have the requisite intelligence required to understand that, seeing how a six year probably could.

There is no standardized test to detect meaning, of course. But at the very least, it has to meet the requirements of the scientific method (e.g. any hypothesis should be observable, measurable, and falsifiable and it isn’t something that some person just made up, grasping at straws).

“Of course, thinking scientifically isn’t placing oneself inside a box. It’s you.” Seeing how I have, so far, only defended science (e.g. basing knowledge on “evidence”, “logic”, and “probability”), one can only assume you were referring to scientific thought as a “box”. Of course, now you’re making it personal by implying I am simple-minded (I guess you’ve ran out of rational thought), but I will resist your challenge to throw mud, since it doesn’t advance anything of actual substance.

bdill101 August 28, 2013 at 9:41 am

I just realized I wrote “compex web of interconnected phenomena”. More evidence that you mistook me for calling the universe uncomplicated.

bdill101 August 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Would you prefer if he wrote,

We know that [it is highly improbable] the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being.

Maybe that’s more accurate, but it is quibbling, and it’s just a desperate attempt to hold on to the dubious belief that humans have some sort of central importance in the universe.

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A. Jay Adler August 24, 2013 at 5:11 pm

No it is not quibbling, and you, like the last commenter make unfounded presumptions about my stance in this, though what I believe is not the point. The rigor with which we argue and make claims is.

I’m surprised that people arguing so assertively for the reach and grasp of science are so cavalier about the precision with which the boldest possible claims are expressed and the empirical and reasoned basis for making them. Your formulation overreaches too. We “know” no such thing. What we can say is that we find no evidence of any human centrality or purpose and that the workings of the universe appear to be uninfluenced by human considerations. No scientific methodology or standard of reasoning permits a stronger claim than that.

I am making no desperate attempt to hold on to such beliefs because I do not hold them. However, before we can make assertions about human centrality and purpose, we have to consider what those ideas would even mean. It is a predisposition of the scientific mind to think mechanistically, instrumentally, and teleologically – that last in the sense that human “purpose” is posited ideally as some kind of bell that gets rung in the end. Is that what human purpose need be? Is centrality found only in mechanistic or final causation? We cannot talk about “knowing” anything about these states until we are clear what it is we propose by the very idea of them. The humanities, in which I include philosophy, can play a profound role in that consideration. The sciences, based upon the contributions here, beginning with Pinker’s essay, seem blind to their own boundaries and prone to an arrogance aided by cartoonish trivialization of the humanities.

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bdill101 August 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

You seem to forget that “logic” is also a main pillar of scientific thought.

For example, we know the probability of the existence of the tooth fairy and spiderman is very low, just speaking from strict logic.

Although we can’t disprove those things, you wouldn’t chastise somebody for saying “we know that the tooth fairy does not exist.”

One may argue that the tooth fairy is actually more probable than human centrality to the universe.

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A. Jay Adler August 26, 2013 at 9:52 am

If that’s what you have to offer in reply, I’m happy to let it stand.

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bdill101 August 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

I’m disappointed you fail to see this very simple line of reasoning that is essential to science. I didn’t mean to belittle your argument by using the tooth fairy analogy, but my point was, yes, we cannot disprove human centrality. But we also cannot disprove the possibility a lot of other things, but we take it for granted that they are impossible (e.g. time travel).

Nobody expects scientists do disprove hypotheses which are, though not impossible, highly improbable. You cannot prove a negative, so science is concerned only with probability. In lay-person terms, the notion of “vastly improbable” is equivalent to impossible.

steven johnson August 14, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Shakespeare didn’t invent the human. Sorry you shot yourself in the foot.

You dismiss science as knowledge and are outraged that anyone can claim
science knows the laws of nature have no human purpose. You thereby claim they might. This justifies Pinker’s attack on magical thinking in the humanities. Yet you have the gall to attack him for it!

The exclusive focus on European figures privileges their human experience above those the humanoid operations of the lesser life forms. I suppose you meant them (here, at least) to be scientistic trash. But it could just as well be any number of people from other cultures. In terms of appreciating human experience, the “humanities” are not as successful as your arrogance pretends.

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A. Jay Adler August 14, 2013 at 4:16 pm

You don’t argue any better than you read, beginning with that foolish opening shot. Shakespeare didn’t actually invent the human? Oh. Thanks.

Nowhere in this brief post do I dismiss science as knowledge. To do so would be an absurdity, but you manage to find it. I express no outrage at Pinker’s claim to know the puposelessness of the laws of nature – I merely point to what should be the easy inference (though apparently not for you) that the claim is unsupportable by its maker’s own scientific and ratiocinating standards. I offer no claim at all on the matter.

Nothing in the post endorses magical thinking, which I do not endorse or identify with the humanities, though apparently you, like Pinker and Virginia Heffernan, do.

The European origin of the thinkers I list matches that of the thinkers Pinker listed. Are you taking a gratuitous PC shot at him too? To draw from one’s native tradition in a discussion not culturally based privileges nothing, though given your condescension about what you characterize as “magical” thinking, I don’t anticipate any great regard from you for much of the Asian and African cultures. To accommodate you, though, I’ll see what I can do the next time I write a 500-word post about including with it the card catalog from the Library at Alexandria.

Finally, I, of course, made no claim about the humanities’ level of success in appreciating human experience. You appear to have read a text in your own head.

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SnoopyTheGoon August 11, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Now, gentlemen, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. I mean that (largely rhetorical to both of you, I gather) question “since when are “Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith” scientists?”

As one whose education was in physics, I didn’t read enough of the learned gentlemen mentioned above (unfortunately). However, I can assure you that from the point of view of any physicist worth his degree, philosophy is not only held in highest esteem, but is in fact the only science that governs physics.

As well as providing the best of physicists with food for thought and guidance, philosophy is, in turn, fed by input from physics (and other precise sciences) as well as from humanists, of course.

Please take into account that this comment doesn’t relate in any way to the body of the post and that the author of this comment will vastly prefer to stick his head into a beehive than to argue against the said post.

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A. Jay Adler August 13, 2013 at 9:52 am

Snoop, I quite agree. Far from denigrating philosophy, I esteem it. It is my intellectual backbone. Physics, along with paleontology, is a particular scientific interest here on the sad red earth. I’ve even written poetry steeped in cosmology: http://sadredearth.com/poetry/weightless/. Pinker, in contrast, would make an apt dinner partner for Virginia Heffernan: http://news.yahoo.com/why-im-a-creationist-141907217.html.

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SnoopyTheGoon August 14, 2013 at 11:44 am

Virginia Heffernan? How does one get to read that stuff, I wonder? What an airhead. Oh, these birds, oooh these flowers, where did you buy this heavenly pair of shoes, I wonder, and this positively smashing black hole… now I will be called a misogynist, I know, but there are some limits.

And thanks for the other link. I don’t usually comment on poetry. Not in my second language, at least.

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rlandes August 10, 2013 at 9:44 pm

a large collection of bones to pick. dog’s delight. did you see Weiseltier on this?

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A. Jay Adler August 11, 2013 at 12:33 am

I took “spectacular” from him. I just wish he hadn’t resorted to referencing the “mysteriousness” of human experience. I don’t think the ineffable and the unquantifiable are best conceived as seemingly unanswerable questions that more comprehensive and penetrating science, from the view of a Pinker, can, in fact, some day answer.

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rlandes August 8, 2013 at 5:58 pm

since when are “Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith” scientists? who (other than the people in the field with physics envy) writes “political ‘science’” without scare quotes around “science”?

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A. Jay Adler August 9, 2013 at 11:30 am

That’s just one of many bones I didn’t pick.

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A. Jay Adler August 26, 2013 at 6:29 pm

You didn’t belittle my argument. You trivialized your own, while ignoring most of mine. That’s why I didn’t bother to engage.

Tooth fairies and Spiderman are categorically different from human beings. The last actually exist. In your analogy you compare disproving the very existence of the first two with offering, about the last, a predication about something already known to exist. These are simply categorically different propositions.

“Prove” and “know” are not synonyms. Nothing in my post or in my discussion since has addressed anyone proving anything. I have, rather, addressed the careless use of language by which some have claimed to know what they cannot claim to know. I addressed this issue, but you completely ignored what I said. One reason you cannot claim, at least so far, to know that human beings are not “centrally important” to the universe is that you haven’t defined what you mean by centrally important. I gather you do not think it important to use language with rigorous care, but I’m afraid it is, if you wish to think to effect. Do you mean spatially central? (A rhetorical point.) Do you mean functionally central – something science could address? Or do you, by use of the word “important,” raise instead the issue of significance, a combination of meaning and value? If so, then we move beyond the bounds of science, to what is neither observable nor measurable nor subject to pure reason.

That space makes some people uncomfortable, or leaves them bewildered, so best to ignore it.

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