Steven Pinker

When Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker published an essay last summer, ”Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” in The New Republic he can hardly have expected the result. His call to conversion to his dismissive materialist analysis garnered not merely an impassioned response but a widespread and intelligent demolition of the scientism he represents.

Scientism? It used to be an insult, implying that science answers all meaningful questions. But, as philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg, author of Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, explains, a hard core of thinkers today believes that to be fact:

My conception of scientism is almost the same as that of those who use it as a term of abuse. They use the term to name the exaggerated and unwarranted confidence that science and its methods can answer all meaningful questions. I agree with that definition except for the “exaggerated” and “unwarranted” part.

Moreover, he says in the same 2012 interview, at Talking Philosophy that “scientism dictates a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans and of our evolution—biological and cultural,” one “that will strike many people as immoral as well as impious.”

He blames the pushback he (and Pinker) have encountered on the fact that the human race hasn’t evolved in such a way as to see that his views are correct (he and Pinker are presumably exceptions). Others, however, blame the pushback on contrary evidence. Following hard upon recent affirmations of the existence of free will and of doubts about materialist neuroscience and materialist psychiatry, this development is not entirely a surprise to trend-watchers. Rather, it is a confirmation.

First, New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier replied in “Crimes Against Humanities”, calling Pinker’s viewpoint a “reductionist racket.” He pointed out that

Reason is larger than science. Reason is not scientific; science is rational. Moreover, science is not all that is rational. Philosophy and literature and history and critical scholarship also espouse skepticism, open debate, formal precision (though not of the mathematical kind), and—at the higher reaches of humanistic labor—even empirical tests.

And philosopher Massimo Pigliucci writes, Pinker “joins a disturbingly long list of scientists (and a few philosophers) who confuse a defense of good science with a knee-jerk reaction against sound criticism of science.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat weighed in as well, offering some apt comments on another well-known scientistic thinker who joined the debate, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne: “The point that critics make against eliminative-materialism, which Coyne seems not to grasp, is that it makes a kind of hard-and-fast moral realism logically impossible.” As statistician Peter G. Klein responded to Pinker, The “best available scientific evidence” may suggest this or that, but it hardly follows that people should base their decisions on that evidence (or that it should guide government policy). Next week’s scientific consensus may be entirely different.” For instance, science cannot tell us whether we are our brother’s keeper or whether we should make decisions based on the outcome of believing it or not.

Cell biologist Jalees Rehman complains that “Infusing science with ideological stances concerning the primacy of the scientific method could undermine the power of science which is rooted in its willingness to oppose ideological posturing.” The defenders of scientism are usually quick by contrast to tell us their views, derived from their beliefs, on highly controversial issues.

And, apart from that, dismissing disciplines is not a good way to understand them. English prof Geoff Shullenberger, for example, responds to Pinker that the charge against a typical scientistic fad like literary Darwinism is not that it attaches too much importance to science. Rather, it “fails to make its case because it does not take the relation between the humanities and the sciences seriously enough.” Trendy musings about how famous fictional characters can best be interpreted through popular science theories just don’t enter into the experience of literature deeply enough to do justice to art or science.

In “No, Jane Austen Was Not a Game Theorist,” William Deresiewicz follows that up, eviscerating a claim that Jane Austen and other literary greats can be understood scientifically, in terms of game theory. Novelist Curtis White, himself an atheist and author of  The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers excoriates the gullible materialism of popular science writing today, which makes such scientism seem plausible to many.

One reason many thinkers no longer fear being branded as ignoramuses for opposing scientism is that the big revolutions predicted on the basis of scientism have never happened. For example, after 50 years, the quest for computers that think like humans has sputtered, says  “Bitwise” columnist for Slate David Auerbach. Computing is not consciousness and isn’t about to become so.

Yale computer science prof David Gelernter has weighed into the debate in Commentary, pointing out that “On consciousness and subjectivity, science still has elementary work to do. That work will be done correctly only if researchers understand what subjectivity is, and why it shares the cosmos with objective reality.” This cannot be done in the materialist way that forms the basis of scientism.

Professor of European thought John Gray put his finger on the immense impoverishment that scientism entails when he wrote, “Scientism has many sources, but central among them is a refusal to accept that intractable difficulty is normal in human affairs. Many human conflicts, even ones that are properly understood, do not fall into the category of soluble problems.” That, of course, is the message of great literature, properly understood. As Gray points out, accepting that fact is the first milestone on the road to something like peace.

Some sense of this may be filtering into popular culture. Recently, science writer John Horgan offered an interesting defence of free will in Scientific American. His attempt to accommodate free will to eliminative materialism doesn’t really work. But the fact he felt the need to try demonstrates which way the wind is blowing at present. It seems as if a number of people all at once have looked at the situation and concluded that scientism, far from being an inevitable answer to our problems, is neither inevitable nor an answer.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...