Monday, August 19, 2013

War of science and the humanities redux: Ross Douthat on The Scientism of Steven Pinker

I enjoyed a very well written article by Steven Pinker in the New Republic titled "Science is not your enemy", which argued that an increasing melding of science and the humanities should not be seen at a threat to, but rather as an expansion of, humanistic studies - enhanced by science's quest for intelligibility of the world and a quest for objectivity about its workings. Ross Douthat writes a critique that nails more clearly than I would have the insidious naturalistic fallacy that still lurks in Pinker's prose, the conflating of "is" with "ought to be". He notes that Pinker offers a
...defensible-if-tendentious account of how the progress of science has undercut the world-pictures bequeathed to us by tradition, intuition and religion. Now an innocent reader might assume 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. After all, if our universe’s testable laws and empirical realities have no experimentally-verifiable connection to human ends and values, then one would expect rival ideas of the good to have difficulty engaging with one another fruitfully, escaping from the pull of relativism or nihilism, and/or grounding their appeals in anything stronger than aesthetic preference.
But then cites the following passage from Pinker to point out that isn't where Pinker is going:
In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. … 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.
This is an impressively swift march from allowing, grudgingly, that scientific discoveries do not “dictate” values to asserting that they “militate” very strongly in favor of … why, of Steven Pinker’s very own moral worldview! You see, because we do not try witches, we must be utilitarians! Because we know the universe has no purpose, we must imbue it with the purposes of a (non-species-ist) liberal cosmopolitanism! Because of science, we know that modern civilization has no dialectic or destiny … so we must pursue its “unfulfilled promises” and accept its “moral imperatives” instead!
Douthat suggest Pinker is promulgating the Whig interpretation of history (from Wikipedia: Whig history ... is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress toward enlightenment.)
Like Sam Harris, who wrote an entire book claiming that “science” somehow vindicates his preferred form of philosophical utilitarianism (when what he really meant was that if you assume utilitarian goals, science can help you pursue them), Pinker seems to have trouble imagining any reasoning person disagreeing about either the moral necessity of “maximizing human flourishing” or the content of what “flourishing” actually means — even though recent history furnishes plenty of examples and a decent imagination can furnish many more. Like his whiggish antecedents, he mistakes a real-but-complicated historical relationship between science and humanism for a necessary intellectual line in which the latter vindicates the former, or at least militates strongly in its favor. 
That's the nub of it. What authority does science have to define what "maximizing human flourishing" means?

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