Leon Wieseltier opens up on Steven Pinker’s scientism (which is not the same thing as science, but rather the ideology of science). Excerpts:
They claim that science is under attack, and from two sides. The first is the fundamentalist strain of Christianity, which does indeed deny the truth of certain proven scientific findings and more generally prefers the subjective gains of personal rapture to the objective gains of scientific method. Against this line of attack, even those who are skeptical about the scientizing enterprise must stand with the scientists, though it is important to point out that the errors of religious fundamentalism must not be mistaken for the errors of religion. Too many of the defenders of science, and the noisy “new atheists,” shabbily believe that they can refute religion by pointing to its more outlandish manifestations. Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally. When they read, most believers, like most nonbelievers, interpret. When the Bible declares that the world was created in seven days, it broaches the question of what a day might mean. When the Bible declares that God has an arm and a nose, it broaches the question of what an arm and a nose might mean. Since the universe is 13.8 billion years old, a day cannot mean 24 hours, at least not for the intellectually serious believer; and if God exists, which is for philosophy to determine, this arm and this nose cannot refer to God, because that would be stupid.
Interpretation is what ensues when a literal meaning conflicts with what is known to be true from other sources of knowledge. As the ancient rabbis taught, accept the truth from whoever utters it. Religious people, or many of them, are not idiots. They have always availed themselves of many sources of knowledge. They know about philosophical argument and figurative language. Medieval and modern religious thinking often relied upon the science of its day. Rationalist currents flourished alongside anti-rationalist currents, and sometimes became the theological norm. What was Jewish and Christian and Muslim theology without Aristotle? When a dissonance was experienced, the dissonance was honestly explored. So science must be defended against nonsense, but not every disagreement with science, or with the scientific worldview, is nonsense. The alternative to obscurantism is not that science be all there is.
Wieseltier is not defending religion per se in his essay, but defending other ways of knowing against the hegemonistic claims of science (or, to be precise, against the hegemonistic claims of scientism). His essay is more of a defense of the humanities against Pinker’s claim that they are an inferior way of knowing, and should be subordinated to science. Here is Wieseltier on the value of tradition; I think this is quite fine:
The present has the power of life and death over the past. It can choose to erase vast regions of it. Tradition is what the present calls those regions of the past that it retains, that it cherishes and needs. Contrary to the progressivist caricature, tradition is not the domination of the present by the past. It is the domination of the past by the present—the choice that we make to preserve and to love old things because we have discovered in them resources for contemporary sustenance and up-to-the-minute illumination.
It makes no sense to denounce a tradition for demanding “respect for the way things have always been done.” The humanities should make no apologies for making such a demand. It is not the dreary reactionary intercession that Pinker makes it out to be—unless, of course, there really is nothing more to be learned from the way things have always been done. Where is the man who can honestly say that this is so? Scientizers—and presidents and provosts and deans and donors—may regard such a release from custom as a liberation, but for humanists it represents a calamity, a terrible self-inflicted wound on the self and the culture. There are moments when there is nothing more urgent than the defense of what has already been accomplished. A threat to what one values cannot be met by a desire for something else. In his opposition to postmodernist theories of science, for example, and to other misappropriations of the mantle of science, Pinker is correct to be unswayed by the rustle of the new and to speak for conformity to the established understandings. Sometimes wisdom is conventional. The denigration of conventional wisdom is itself a convention.
In demanding respect for the way things have always been done, one is not demanding an end to new ways of doing things. Tradition is a body of accumulated innovations, some of them evolving smoothly from precedent, some of them more of a rupture with earlier methods and conclusions. The chronicle of the humanities is the chronicle of different techniques for interpreting the humanities. They do not all go together, like the canon itself; and the internecine tensions, which result from the workings of originality in even the most hidebound pursuits, provide many of the thrills of humanistic learning. Pinker concedes that “there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works,” but really he is bored by all those old practices and wants the humanities to move on. They need to be saved; they need to be saved by something other than themselves; they need to be saved by science.