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).