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Fighting Scientism Without Theism

I feel like we go around this track every other month. A scientist or science-popularizer writes an unpersuasive essay arguing that science “proves” that religion is bad for children and other living things; a theist responds with an unpersuasive essay arguing that without some grounding in the divine, we’re doomed to become Nazis. Here’s the latest go-round with Ross Douthat critiquing Steven Pinker.

It’s almost as if nobody in the debate wants to acknowledge that there are whole libraries of philosophical debate about these “how shall we live” questions that don’t start either with Thomas Aquinas or Jeremy Bentham. Heck, there are entire religions that aren’t grounded in a theism that Douthat would recognize as consonant with his own traditional Catholicism.

It’s almost as if neither side can accept the possibility that religion is a natural phenomenon. Steven Pinker wrote a whole book against the idea that we can simply ignore our innate natures when we concoct schemes for social improvement. How, then, can he blithely assume that we can, as a species, move beyond a phenomenon – religion – as old as our knowledge of ourselves? How can he blithely assert that “faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.” Is he a positivist? Would he apply scientific standards of knowledge to the question, “do I think my daughter’s new boyfriend is good for her” – or might he resort to “conventional wisdom,” or even the authority of a received tradition as to how boyfriends are supposed to behave (and uphold that, if necessary, against the “invigorating glow of subjective certainty” that the daughter might manifest).

And, similarly, Douthat can write blithely that “the crack-up of these world pictures, with their tight link between cosmic design and human purposes, might make moral consensus more difficult to realistically achieve.” As if there was some period in the past where radically incompatible religious world views led to moral consensus!

Douthat is skeptical of Whiggish optimism. Well and good: make a case against Whiggism that a scientist would respect. Argue that the apparent improvement in material conditions rests on fragile material foundations. Make a case from our knowledge of human nature – knowledge that has a scientific basis, not merely a scholastic one – that human beings aren’t very happy living in John Stuart Mill’s world – that even as we benefit from the innovative spirit of modernity, we need authority, tradition, and so forth. Douthat gestures toward the existence of philosophical dissenters from liberal utilitarianism, but his gestures are intended to scare us rather than enlighten us: we “risk falling into nihilism or relativism,” and a return to “the chaos of 1914-45, when instead of a humanist consensus the scientifically-advanced West featured radically-incommensurate moral worldviews basically settling their differences by force of arms” (as opposed to the fourteenth century, when the unified Catholicism of Europe meant universal peace and harmony, or the seventeenth century, when metaphysical differences were debated peaceably between different groups of Christians because they recognized a common theistic grounding and hence a shared morality).

Wouldn’t it be more productive – more likely to change the mind of someone like Pinker – to treat Nietzsche not as a boogeyman but as a potent thinker worth grappling with, even learning from? And to add that over two thousand years ago Aristotle was already engaged in the kind of program that Pinker seems to want for the humanities, but that, ironically, he argued against his predecessor Plato who thought those with access to “true knowledge” should make the rules for society?

And really, would it kill Pinker to argue the case for science without feeling the need to argue the case against more traditional modes of accumulating wisdom? Or to acknowledge the value of a phenomenological approach that (I would argue) is more consonant with the way much of the best and most-lasting work in the humanities is written? Yes, a scientific approach to art might do a good job of identifying patterns in our responses to visual art, music, literature, etc., and might do a good job of explaining how our perceptions work (and I hope Pinker knows that plenty of working artists are deeply engaged with these kinds of questions). But will it help us cultivate an individual response of greater intellectual or emotional depth? And given that the purpose of great art is precisely such a response, isn’t it valuable that there are people who work in the humanities for still labor in that field? Would it kill him to acknowledge that while wisdom and understanding might in theory be reducible to knowledge, the experience of wisdom and understanding by definition cannot be?

Or, at a minimum, would it kill him to admit ignorance of the grounding of his own philosophical inclinations? To say, “I don’t know why my core ethical postulates, which I believe to be unobjectionable, are true. I’ve just noticed that a lot of scientists I know seem to hold similar ones, so I suspect that a thorough exposure to science encourages an ethical outlook like mine. That’s not a scientific proof, though – it’s just a subjective certainty. So I take that conclusion with caution, and accept that there may be other causes of the pattern I have observed.” After all, Pinker is unlikely to be genuinely interested in the philosophical grounding of his own ethical beliefs – indeed, he could probably make a cogent argument that the question isn’t terribly important. What matters is the practical, social and psychological grounding. And those are questions that are, in principle, subject to scientific investigation.

Modern science is an extraordinary achievement of human civilization. I am even willing to agree that the knowledge science is capable of producing is genuinely of a different kind from all other forms of knowledge, and that it is the only method that can reliably build suspension bridges of reason across the vast voids of ignorance. It does not follow, therefore, that we can’t learn anything useful any other way. And it certainly doesn’t follow that people following a strictly scientific approach will necessarily learn usefully-applicable things more swiftly than those following other, more traditional or more humanistic approaches. That’s all critics of scientism really need to argue.

Actually, the original essay by Philip Kitcher that was among the essays Pinker was responding to does a pretty good job of hitting a bunch of the points I’ve sketched above. He points out the difference between imaginative understanding and systematic knowledge, and the ultimate value of each for the development of the other. He articulates the importance of wisdom and prudence in applying the inherently tentative conclusions of science to the incredibly complex world of human societies. He doesn’t argue against science – he argues for the value, social and, yes, scientific, of other modes of inquiry. I wish Pinker had actually responded to what Kitcher wrote, and that Douthat had rebutted in similar terms.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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