Steven Pinker and Scientism

I just read Steven Pinker’s recent article in The New Republic, “Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians”. Although the article calls itself a plea, it rather appears as the words of a self-appointed apostle of science, who reprimands ungrateful children for their inability to celebrate the manna bestowed upon them by science. Bewildered, Pinker writes, “One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong”.

While I’m tempted to go through every part of the article and critique it, my argument can be summarized in a few points. First, Pinker begins with a misconception of philosophy, specifically metaphysics, which is not neurology, but rather the speculative thought about how we can come to make claims about knowledge and truth. Pinker’s enlisting of philosophers like Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, etc. into the ranks of cognitive neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists is simply ignorant. Pinker would do well to walk over to the office of his colleague Peter Galison—professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University—and ask Galison to explain to him the differences between Metaphysics and neurology. Galison could also tell Pinker about the ideas of the self-improvement of humanity in the history of scientific thought. Pinker fails to see how anyone could possibly have anything negative to say “Enlightenment humanism”, which Pinker says is behind science today. This, I would argue, is the decisive point behind much of the criticism of scientism. Pinker lists such words as “reductionism” as terms used to criticize science’s flattening view of the world, but he doesn’t really explain how those criticisms are inaccurate.

The devotion to scientific facts becomes its own religious worldview. I want to quote at length a passage in which Pinker lists the ways in which science has accomplished such a view:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

While it is true that mystical belief-systems have been rejected, there is a difficult situation now in which scientific practice in thought becomes almost violent in its perception of all things. The enlightenment humanism espoused by Pinker due to its concern for self-preservation of humanity is heavily criticized by the Frankfurt School because it reduces nature and other humans to mere objects of domination. In other words: just as nature is now simply a material to be manipulated to achieve the goals of human flourishing, such a utilization can and has been turned upon fellow humans.

This of course is timely to have read this article while Noam Chomsky criticizes Slavoj Žižek for daring to have thought outside of scientific categories, which merely affirms the status quo. In Dialect of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno address such demands upon maintaining strict theoretical borders:

The loyal son of modern civilization’s fear of departing from the facts, which even in their perception are turned into clichés by the prevailing usages in science, business, and politics, is exactly the same as the fear of social deviation. Those usages also define the concept of clarity in language and thought to which art, literature, and philosophy must conform today. By tabooing any thought which sets out negatively from the facts and from the prevailing modes of thought as obscure, convoluted, and preferably foreign, that concept holds mind captive in ever deeper blindness (xvi-xvii).

The blind obedience to mere empiricism is a symptom of equating reality with eternal truths, thus leaving no room for imaginative thought.

A side note: for a critique of the encroachment of scientism—in the form of the controversial Evolutionary Psychology—into literary studies, read Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Winter 2011): 315-347. The essay is available on JSTOR as well, if you have JSTOR access. This essay was brought up a lot during my time at Critical Inquiry, and we even printed several responses to the essay in issue 2 of volume 38 (Winter 2012).

One thought on “Steven Pinker and Scientism

  1. Ulysses Alvarez Laviada

    As I was listening to Pinker I kept asking myself. How can a scientist talk about his “personal philosophy” when the topic of his talk is reason? Is there a personal take on reason? If so, how such take would still relate to the voice of scientific reason? Can reason have attributes that stretch its definition within reasonable constraints? Can reason have attributes to the point of madness and still be reasonable when expressed in an oxymoron like maddening reason or reasonable madness?
    If so, what is the relevance of a scientist tapping into the aspects of reason which are not strictly rational, but rather personal? Wouldn’t his speculations be as valid as that of a religious person? Would the scientist be the one ruling which speculations are reasonable, namely, acceptable by the rational standards of scientific endeavours?
    Pinker has decided to talk about reason from what he calls his “personal philosophy” not only as if such views could exist independent from his scientific views, but also as if the topic of reason would still hold valid without contradicting his scientific views. In which case, he would have to agree to an ideological stand of reason which operates outside the general precepts of reason defined by scientific standards.
    Pinker is a scientist and a public intellectual. If he is truly committed to reason in the way he believes and in the way he is tirelessly willing to educate us, he shouldn’t assume that there is a personal take on reason from which he could refer to reason in the unreasonable and speculative way he does.
    If we were to accept such premise, namely, talking about reason from the unreasonable speculative space of the personal, Pinker should have committed to enquire that aspect of reason in a reasonable way outside the safe space of the personal and include the personal as part of his enquiries.
    Let’s quote Pinker himself:
    “As soon as we are having this conversation. As long as we are trying to persuade one another of why you should do something or should believe something
    you are already committed to reason. If we are not engaged in a fist fight if we are not bribing each other to believe something. If we are trying to provide reasons, to persuade, to convince. As long as you are doing that in the first place, you are not hitting someone with a chair, or putting a gun to their head or bribing them to believe something you lost any argument you have against reason, you have already signed on to reason whether you like it or not.”
    Pinker is right about reason. Once we enter into a communication protocol with another person with the intent of exchanging words and conveying meaning we are committed to reason, but we can be very much committed to our reason and not that of others. A commitment to reason in general as the universal reason of an individual or community wouldn’t help much to our understanding of a real commitment to reason among others and among things.
    Trying to persuade other people wouldn’t be enough to be committed to reason. Pinker is being naive and not scientific right as he is doing his best to stand for scientific rigour. This is, precisely, the kind of mishap we can fall into when we are trying to make reason universal, but we fail to acknowledge that we will always remain short by trying to do so.
    Using reason and being committed to reason are two different things. Both, Socratics and Sophists in Ancient Greece use reason to validate their points, but only Socratics were committed to reason. To be committed to reason goes beyond using reason even if we had the best of intentions to be reasonable as we use reason.
    To be committed to reason is to detect patterns of conflict and of harmony between our ideas and the world around us. It is to detect patterns of agreements and disagreements between us and others around us and be committed to keeping the conflict, the harmony, the agreement and the disagreement open, under constant revision and with the outmost transparency to serve a common purpose within an existing and an expanding community of interests, in relation to which we are often likely to fall short and remain blind.
    Pinker is neglecting that reason not only operates as an empiricist method of common scientific practices, but it also operates at many other levels in which it can appear unreasonable not only to the specialist but also to any layperson whose idiosyncrasies can be far off from a particular embodiment of reason. Pinker assumes a naturalistic and essentialist universal embodiment of reason as if the general precepts of science should be the guidelines for any rational endeavour outside science.
    When we say that the world is rational because it makes sense to us in the way we view it, there are far more elements we are considering in addition or even sometimes with the exclusion of any empiricist methods. The pertinent question, in this case, would be, can reason go against reason, namely, can a type of reason or reasoning go against a different type of reason or reasoning in a reasonable way?
    If Pinker in his analysis of Wittgenstein’s categories fallacies is willing to accept the fuzziness and nominal existence of concepts, why he wouldn’t apply the same fuzziness to the concept of reason in a rigorous manner instead of using the ideological cop out of his personal take on it?
    Doesn’t reason make also a strong case as a hard to define category in terms of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Wouldn’t reason be a fuzzy set following Pinker’s way of reasoning? Isn’t reason a category defined by family resemblance or is Pinker falling back against Wittgenstein to an essentialist Aristotelian position when it comes to the definition of reason?
    The reasons or the way of reasoning put forward by a person could start a fist fight or a war when such reasoning is considered by the other interlocutor as unreasonable or irrational even when both are considering their stand based on reason.
    Thus, Pinker in his personal approach to reason is not only extending the scientific method of empiricism to the general essentialist concept of reason, but also putting the straightjacket of the empiricist method of science to the general concept of reason.
    I do believe that the empiricist scientific approach is valid for a better and more accurate understanding of reality, but to assume that such method can be fully extended to our general understanding of reason is to assume that only reason which is based on facts or in a particular family of resemblance of logical assertions is valid. This might sound as evidently reasonable as we might think, but it would be easily inclined to confirmation bias traps.
    Pinker knows perfectly that reason which is not based on facts or on a particular family resemblance of logical assertions that is not taken as universal, under certain reasonable constraints can be valid, but under others might not be. Furthermore, using religion as an example to invalidate anything outside reason is an easy straw man fallacy.
    Reason is far more complex and often what lies outside it can be still reason, but not of the same family of resemblance Pinker might like to confirm. There are reasons outside of the scope of Pinker’s reason, right when he might be trying to apply confirmation bias without him knowing because he is relying too much on his or his community of accepted universal rules of reason.
    If a man killed another man and his reasons are based on his non religious faith and he found it reasonable to do so, it would be easy to assume that the man is a criminal or an insane person, but things turn complicated when under the name of reason nations commit genocide or systematic obliteration of minorities.
    A dominant way of reason can, no doubt, improve and become more reasonable, but so can too the obliterated reason that has been subjugated by the precepts of the dominant reason to still be able to highlight the blind spots of that improved dominant reason.
    Pinker forgets that under the name of reason many irrational and unreasonable atrocities have been perpetrated in human history. This, obviously, tells us that reason has often dressed up with many names, names at times close to reason and at other times so far off from reason that they have become the opposite of it.
    The fact that reason has been dressed up with many names which have betrayed it hasn’t happened only because of the methods used, but because of the purposes associated with it. We, humans, have equipped ourselves with a rational way of enquiring reality, but we have also equipped ourselves with a rational way of making it meaningful.
    To give meaning to reality and to find a purpose in life go far beyond having a method to understand it. With the use of the empiricist method of science we built the hydrogen bomb and with an assumed rational purpose America massacred Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    We often take decisions which are not empirically based but rather based on purposes which could mismatch greatly our empirical pieces of evidence. They are the stuff made of dreams, dreams almost impossible to make real unless we are more driven by our will than by our facts.
    When we say:”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Such moral dictum, although valid in many instances, obeys a principle of rational behaviour that is too generic because it might not take into consideration the specific rational elements of another person or group, but rather makes us think and behave on what we know and feel out of ourselves and measure from that how other people might think or feel.
    It is natural and rational to measure other people by the precepts of our own rational assumptions, but often we need to put them in abeyance to appreciate a different angle to rationality in other people. We get often used to taken our own precepts of rationality as universally valid and applicable to all cases. Not because Pinker way of thinking is taken as highly rational and he is a forerunner of reason he and his rules of universal reason should be exempted from the traps of universalism.
    Hence, we can have a rational purpose in life and such purpose can be a complete mismatch with the way or methods to achieve it. With the natural-rational empiricist method of science we can do a great deal of progress, but to assume we can extend it to everything else would only force us to do little to truly improve the reasonable purposes of societies at large.
    Pinker insists on telling us:
    “Any reason that I give you for how you should behave has to apply to me in order for me not to be a hypocrite or to contradict myself.”
    But Pinker has already contradicted himself. Any reason that Pinker gives us for how we should behave doesn’t necessarily and shouldn’t necessarily apply to him. For that to be the case we would have to assume that the place of reason from which Pinker speaks or reasons is seamlessly correlated to a “us” that is fully homogeneous and related to him and his ideas.
    Furthermore, Pinker is contradicting himself, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a hypocrite. He would be so if, fully aware of his own contradictions, he would still pitch his advice while silencing such contradictions.
    Pinker is taking a naturalistic and essentialist approach to reason and against Wittgenstein’s lesson not taking his theory of language as games rigorously. There is a real contradiction in Wittgenstein between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, but this contradiction is not a mishap in Wittgenstein’s thinking.
    Such contradiction was for Wittgenstein at the core of humans natural metaphysical tendencies. Being an essentialist in the way Pinker is would translate in Wittgenstein’s terms as being metaphysical. How Pinker would acknowledge such issue is to be seen, but if acknowledged he could wrongly take it as a mishap in his theory or as the inevitable stand he ought to question if he really wanted to be true to reason and clean his theory of metaphysical stands.
    Wittgenstein advises us:
    “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”
    The above is from the Tractatus. That which “we cannot talk about” refers to any metalanguage or, ultimately, metaphysics. In that sense, the spirit of the Tractatus is to warn us that incurring in meta language is pointless and leads to nonsense.
    We have to keep in mind that Wittgenstein was aiming at constructing a logically perfect language from the heritage of Russell’s work at the time of writing the Tractatus. Obviously, he desisted from such labour in his Philosophical Investigations and the Tractatus became just the prelude for setting the limits of language and metaphysics.
    Pinker took this teaching from Wittgenstein in his references to categories and concepts, but clearly, abandons it when referring in this video to his “personal philosophy.” Pinker is referring to a universal idea of reason that would seamlessly apply to any human endeavour.
    Furthermore, Wittgenstein never believed in a private language. For him, once you are in language you are in a public domain. Pinker would require clarifying what distinction if any, he is drawing between private and personal language in relation to Wittgenstein, which is allowing him to have a personal and a scientific stand on reason.
    In the quote that follows Wittgenstein reinforces the idea of metaphysics’ nonsense and the nonsense of our attempts at creating universal concepts, but he adds something else:
    “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them… He must so to speak throw away the ladder…”
    In the above quote, Wittgenstein highlights how even his advances into clarifying the limits of his own thought as the limits of thought in general and the cleansing of his language of metaphysical pursuits as the cleansing of language in general should be taken as being metaphysical and, accordingly, discarded once it has been understood. In other words, the chances for falling into metaphysics is at the core of not trying to. This doesn’t mean that we will inevitably fall into it, but there is always a great chance of doing so precisely as we don’t try to. Pinker is ignoring this subtlety of Wittgenstein’s legacy.
    To be faithful to Wittgenstein’s request means to me, and bear in mind that I am doing metaphysics as I explain it, so my words should be discarded too after assimilated, that further creation of any universal concept should pass through and over the analytical approach of cleansing the created universal concept. Pinker completely neglected this analytical approach in his attempts at creating a universal definition of reason.
    Pinker doesn’t seem to be able to find any other valid alternative to his scientific universal reason than the one he can confidently mock when telling us:
    “The alternative that many people appeal to, namely, faith, immediately refutes itself, faith means believing in something with no good reason to do it. Once you are talking to someone about what it is good to do, what they ought to do, what they have reasons to do you can’t appeal to faith, you are committed to reason.”
    Pinker cherry picks his own definition of faith so that he can dislodge it from its meaningful existence within reason, but not Pinker’s kind of reason: “Faith means believing in something with no good reason to do it.” Faith could also mean, believing in something when all available reasons have been tested and exhausted and not having faith could reasonably cost you your life.
    We could, in fact, have faith in reason, which means that we blindly trust that when all reasons have been tested and exhausted we look ahead into the future for reason to turn up. Confirmation bias is another way in which we put faith in our own reason based on its past success and forcing us to look only for things that rationally match our accepted and unquestioned rational mindset. Pinker complacently bypasses all these details of reason, because he cannot conceive of a reason that appears unreasonable to his mindset while it is reasonable to another mindset.
    Pinker insists:
    “I think that using the word god or the attitude to faith about that which you don’t know is a cop out, is a way of slapping a label on to something rather than trying to understand it. Or since we might not understand anything, just say you don’t understand it. To invent stories that sounds as if they were true or could be true, to pretend they are true so that we can have story I think is unsatisfying and it could even be immoral because it could lead you to mistaken policies, getting in the way of your best understanding of how the world works to do things that lead to more harm than good. An example would be treating cancer with some homoeopathic formula instead of the best medicine that we have.”
    Pinker again does cherry picking and straw man fallacies. Any theory that can be rigorously proven or falsified can also be easily disproved or falsified by picking on the weak secondary points on which it is based. Pinker, as a scientist, should know so, but unfortunately, he chooses the easier way out when it comes to faith or god.
    Whether god exists or not is not something that necessarily needs to be proven. In fact, the proofs for the existence of god has been proven unprovable and such unprovability has not proven the non-existence of god, but rather that we haven’t been able to come to terms as to what exactly the premise to be proven means.
    Hence, if Pinker wanted to be rigorous with his assertions about the existence of god, he shouldn’t have taken the path of concluding that god doesn’t exist without putting forward a proof to back up such claim.
    Pinker, however, is right in saying that the common person accepts the existence of god without further rational enquiries. This, however, shouldn’t lead him to assume that proving the non-existence of god is something that can be done with the use of reason. The relevance of the fact that we can’t prove or disprove the existence of god by the use of reason should inform Pinker of Wittgenstein’s lesson. Reason, defined universally, is a game of language, a state of affairs that requires our constant analytical inspection of words and the contexts in which we use them. To neglect so, can actually be immoral and lead to mistaken policies, precisely, the things Pinker is warning us against.
    To accuse Pinker of scientism wouldn’t be accurate. Pinker’s mishaps have nothing to do directly with science, but with his philosophical posturing, namely, stepping out his domain and giving a universal attribute or blueprint to the concept of reason. He, obviously, doesn’t exclude the contributions of many other fields, but he still neglects or considers irrelevant that his scientific approach comes from the natural sciences.
    There are, no doubt, many elements of the natural sciences approaches which are transferable and applicable to the humanities, but to assume that their normative stands should neglect not only the differences between the two but to also assume that because certain beliefs don’t satisfy the empiricist criteria of science should be dismissed or de-platform is to completely misunderstand the rational grounds on which democracy is based.
    Right when Pinker seems to be heading us with his ideas into a more open field of reasoning outside of his own domain, he reinforces one more time his cocooned approach to the understanding of reason. He tells us:
    “Even brand-named universities can get locked into a certain way of thinking, that can be a kind of a cult or religion that becomes entrenched in a particular place. I think you can’t be in just one place and hope that all ideas will come to you. You have to occasionally venture out into places where they think very differently.”
    Pinker can happily state his willingness to step out of the confinement of Harvard and MIT to venture into the intellectual world of cognitive psychology in California, but this is as far as he can go. He wouldn’t accept that one kind of scientific practice related to the natural science or to science in general can get locked into a certain way of thinking, that can be a kind of a cult or religion that becomes entrenched in a particular place. No, Pinker would never contemplate such possibility since science for him is not only a default synonym of reason, but of the right reasoning.
    Obviously, I am not denying that science, more often than not, is related to a kind of reason, which pursuits progress and the betterment of humanity, but to take such reason as an ideological axis and as the blueprint for all kind of reasoning is to ignore one more time, through an essentialist posturing, that science is defined too by a family of resembles in its very practice.
    Scientists are part of the processes of cleansing themselves of metaphysical stands, just as any other human endeavour. Such metaphysical cleansing, taking the best from Wittgenstein’s legacy, can come from fields of competence, which might not be strictly scientific and outside Pinker’s competence.
    Even when Pinker refers to himself he views it as an essentialist problem. He tells us:
    “Here I am inside me, and almost by definition there is going to be something about the view of me inside me that the me doing the view is not going to be able to articulate because the part that would do the articulating is part of the me trying to explain it.”
    Pinker here reproduces the same Wittgenstein’s family resemblance problem he neglected when referring to reason. This time he neglects it in relation to the “I”.
    When Pinker refers to himself he is referring to two things not as one, but as if the only way to refer to them were through clear cut demarcations and not through family of resemblances. Pinker’s “I” is trying to explain and Pinker’s “I” inside himself is trying to articulate such explanation.
    Pinker tells us that there is one “I” inside, but he doesn’t tell us that his other “I” is outside. He knows that is both, inside and outside. Outside not too far off and inside not too deep in. Pinker’s both “I” is the same “I” refracted, mirrored into one limited space-time that slices into two as it articulates itself in the “I” that explains as it keeps itself united.
    Pinker articulates this false duality of the “I” as a problem while the solution comes to the surface of his “I” every time he poses it as a problem because, as he does with reason, he doesn’t see the “I” as a family of resemblance concepts which is meant to constantly updates itself as a broken or harmonious unity.
    Furthermore, Pinker exploration into other fields of competence doesn’t stop at religion, but it also goes into philosophy, bluntly dismissing Martin Heidegger. I find his observations arrogant considering that in the same paragraph he does virtue signalling against arrogance while demeriting in a sloppy way one of the most influential philosophers of the Twenty Century in the field of humanities.
    But lets Pinker speak;
    “There are some questions that may not have answers because they are bad questions. Questions, like why there is something rather than nothing, it may just be a stupid question. The question of why am I here or what is my greatest purpose maybe like that. Given that I am here I think that I have an ethical imperative to be good to other people, to put my life to some purpose that I can define like understanding the world better, helping other people… but some cosmic reasons as to why I seems to me a kind of arrogance or egotism. Why should the Cosmo care about me? That seems to be the high of grandiosity to think that it would.”
    Pinker takes the arrogant liberty, considering that he is not a philosopher, to label as stupid Heidegger’s fundamental question, “Why there is something rather than nothing”. Funnily, the question was later reversed by Jean Baudrillard when he wrote: “Why is there nothing rather than something.”
    If Pinker had thought of Heidegger with a different rational mind he would have noticed how Heidegger thinking was on the side of rationality more that Pinker’s understanding of rationality could afford to understand. Baudrillard’s reversal is actually expressing how much such Heideggerian’s rationality is lost in the endless circulation of information as data.
    All Pinker is actually doing is embarrassing himself and look even more stupid in front of a philosopher who has written and researched philosophical matter with more breadth and depth than he had.
    Pinker not only find Heidegger’s enquiry stupid, but he also finds arrogant and egoistic to ask about our place in the cosmos as an individual. It is very hard for me not to see such gesture in Pinker as virtue signalling. To inquire about our place in the cosmos as individuals doesn’t mean necessarily that we will end up with a favourable answer for the individual. Pinker should know that asking the question is not the confirmation of an answer favourable to the self or ego.

    Ulysses Alvarez Laviada.


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