09 August 2013
I have now read this by Steven Pinker several times and I have managed to work out what I think about it. My thoughts come under three headings:
1)My agreement with one of its most important points – that some of the enemies of ‘scientism’ make serious mistakes, mistakes I have made in the past.
2)My suspicion about some of the claims Pinker makes. This is a relatively trivial point.
3)My conclusion that the article is, as a whole, trivial, subject to the reservation of my first heading.
1)A typical mistake made by critics of scientism – and by me in the past – is to confuse science as a method and science as an institution, by which I mean a force in the real world. In doing so they persistently underestimate the achievement of science, usually resorting, as Pinker notes, to lists of good things which they immediately offset by a list of bad things – cure for polio versus Hiroshima, for example. But the big, the huge, achievement of science lies not in its institutional expressions – in its specific outcomes – but in its epistemology. It has created a new form of knowing which, whether we like it or not, whether we judge it as ultimately true or not, is fantastically effective. Any world view that simply sidesteps this point cannot, for the moment. be taken seriously. But, at the same time and as I shall show below, it is not as important a point as Pinker thinks it is.
2)This is, as I say, a minor point. Pinker evokes neuroscience and genetics as ways in which science is now entering territory previously claimed by the humanities. As far as I can see – and I am open to correction – they have made very little progress and it is premature to assume that, in their present form, they will. There are touches of triumphalism here which slightly spoil the essay’s tone.
3)This leads on to the big point – that Pinker’s essay is trivial. In essence, what Pinker as Candide is saying is: ‘In an ideal world, everything is ideal’. Or, to put it another way, he is engaging in what Popper called ‘promissory materialism’. This is a way of saying ‘it must be true so it is true’; ie it must be true that our contemporary science is right, so it is true. Or it must be true that the scientific method works, therefore it must at once be applied to human affairs or, indeed, the humanities.
What are missing from this are religion’s greatest insight – original sin – and any sense of the folly of what I shall call completablism. Original sin means, ultimately, that humans are capable of screwing anything up. Science as an ideal method is a noble aim but it is seldom achieved. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that it can be applied to the human realm.
“No sane thinker” Pinker writes, “would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe.”
But he does not seem to see the implication of this. Forget about something big like World War 1 and think about the little things of your life. Should I marry this person? Should I go for a walk? What colour should I paint this room? Science has nothing to say about any of these things. You may make some argument about, say, the meaning of colours and why you like them but that is to miss the point as it would not affect what you actually felt about the colour of your room.
This leads to completablism. This is the view that science is a necessarily completable project and that, therefore, it could indeed, one day, sort out your decorating choices. Even if it is, this is a dangerous idea since it propagates the view that it is completable now or imminently, whereas we can never know that. Communism killed many people because its proponents thought it was a scientifically complete view of the world.
If we never know where we are on this road to completion, then we have to treat science with caution because we might be more ignorant that we currently realise. Remember we know nothing about 95 per cent of the cosmos that seems to be made of dark matter and dark energy. If also we know that science has nothing of substance to say about human affairs, then the argument that the humanities must bow to – or perhaps I should say embrace – the current findings of genetics and neuroscience collapses in ruins.
In the light of all this, I think the real reason the Pinker essay is trivial is simply that it is a response to the arguments of others, people who don’t take science seriously enough. As result, Pinker’s view makes the same mistake as anti-scientism in that it confuses the method of science with the institution, with its place in the world. I take science seriously which is why the most important disciplines of all, the humanities of which the history of science is one important part, should study it with great care and concern.