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Steven Pinker’s “Science is Not Your Enemy” – An Appraisal

Steven Pinker’s “Science is Not Your Enemy” – An Appraisal

By Dennis Loo (8/9/13)

Postscript added on Philip Kitcher (8/9/13 in the evening)

Steven Pinker, contributing editor at The New Republic and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, has an August 6, 2013 article at The New Republic entitled: “Science is Not Your Enemy. “ The article is a defense of science against those from the Right and those from the Left who have been pillorying science.

For its part, the Right doesn’t like science because it undermines its claims to faith-based systems such as religion, without which, the Right argues, we would not have morality and therefore we’d all go about raping and pillaging. Their arguments for the need for God-given morality of course doesn’t hold up very long when you look at what the Church and what these very apostles for faith-based answers and solutions do. Exhibit 1 for the Prosecution: the invasion of Iraq…

For those of the postmodern-influenced Left, science is no good because, as Pinker cites

"This passage, from a 2011 review in The Nation of three books by Sam Harris by the historian Jackson Lears, makes the standard case for the prosecution by the [postmodernist] left:

'Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the "fit" and the sterilization or elimination of the "unfit." ... Every schoolkid knows about what happened next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of unimaginable destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of sceintific [sic] research to advanced technology.'"

Pinker’s argument, for the most part, is very well put and I certainly agree with his overall point. He takes apart the conflating of positivism with Social Darwinism et al, a matter that at greater length I go into, as well as what is wrong with the Right's anti-empiricist stance, in the Preface to my 2011 book Globalization and the Demolition of Society. The part of his argument that I want to disagree with him about, however, is most evident in a portion of the following paragraph:

“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.”

Pinker, to begin with, is absolutely right that a) God does not exist, and b) the universe does not care about humans one way or the other. Any meaning (in the philosophical sense) that exists is something that humanity creates because morality and physical reality are unrelated to each other. There is not a Creator with a Grand Plan. There is no Karma. There is no Hell and there is no Heaven.

But then, Pinker throws into his list of fictions along with “mystical forces, quests, destinies…” dialectics. This is no doubt his criticism of Marxism and Marx’s argument that there is a dialectical process shaping history in a teleological manner. Pinker makes this point even more clearly when he says:

“Any movement that calls itself ‘scientific’ but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.”

Indeed. Any movement, scientific or otherwise, that did not foster the potential falsifications of its own beliefs, and persecuted others for disagreeing with it, is not scientific. Because science demands, if it’s to remain scientific, that falsification of its beliefs be an ever-present necessity. You cannot be scientific if you don’t value the pursuit of truth, even if it means that you can be found to be wrong. But it must be said here that while Pinker is right and his description fits some historical and contemporary movements that claim to be Marxist – e.g., contemporary China or Russia – that these countries’ governments are not any more Marxist than Wall Street is Marxist. What exists today in these nations is a form of state capitalism with a veneer based on a once socialist path, of socialist rhetoric.

But it is not enough to say only that…

It is true, and this is a point that Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, has made, that the idea that history is teleological and that there is a grand dialectic in play towards a particular outcome is not scientific. History isn’t necessarily and inevitably going towards communism. There is no, as he put it, inevitablism. History is contingent. What happens or does not happen is not foreordained. People have to act and bring into being what can happen if they act and if the objective conditions make such action possible. There is interplay, in other words, a dialectic in fact, between objective circumstances and the conscious dynamic actions of people. Avakian argues that a genuinely socialist society led by genuine communists would have to involve a lively wrangling spirit in which even those in the highest positions of leadership would be “subject to falsification” and that there would need to be wide-ranging debates and discussions going on throughout society, manifested in all arenas of social and scientific life. This, Avakian argues, is the true spirit of communism, not some stultifying and oppressive secular-religious order. (See also, my article "Grand Old Misconceptions" for more on this.)

What is paradoxical about Pinker’s argument in defense of science is that in the course of that defense he throws in an attack on dialectics. What’s wrong with that? You cannot have science without dialectics. Dialectics, after all, is the explicit recognition that everything that exists can be divided into two: light and dark, sound and silence, mass and space, up and down, right and left, back and forth, in and out, plus and minus, divide and multiply, association and disassociation, offense and defense… Existence is unimaginable without dialectics. Try to imagine sound without silence. Try to imagine light without darkness. You can’t because one depends for its existence on the other. Nothing exists except in relation to and in contrast to other things.

Why does Pinker do this? As Ross Douthat at The New York Times correctly puts it about Pinker’s argument:

“[It} depends on a kind of present-ist chauvinism: His argument seems vaguely plausible only if you regard the paradigmatic shaped-by-science era as the post-Cold War Pax Americana rather than, say, 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.”

To reiterate part of the passage from Pinker that I cited above –

“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.”

Pinker says that these are “unexceptional convictions.” However, what he describes as unexceptional and true are in fact not such because seeing them as unexceptional and true and the basis for a sensible morality and politics are laden with – how could they not be – paradigmatic assumptions. The phrase “all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct” reflects the assumptions of social contract theory: that we are first and foremost individuals and in order to live together and obtain security we make concessions to others at the expense of our first concern about our individual selves. We are, and sociology, biology and anthropology sustain this, in fact, first and foremost social beings and we only exist because we are social beings who came into being as individuals because two other individuals, our parents, combined their genes through (usually) sexual intercourse, and then raised us and taught us what we need to know. He also speaks in this passage about the welfare of sentient beings. But my vegetarian friends and I as an omnivore would ask what about plant life? They’re not sentient, but they are certainly part and parcel of a living planet. The point is that Pinker’s perspective that he claims flows unarguably from science is not uncontestable and his resolution of this question rests still within the limited confines of his bourgeois democratic perspective.

I argue these and related points extensively and throughout my book Globalization and the Demolition of Society. You could say, in a certain sense in fact, that GDS is about these very questions (and related ones) that Pinker is speaking to.

The fullness of the argument I make in my book can’t be reproduced in a single article but let me leave this issue for now with this last passage from my book:

“In every paradigm there are unstated premises that involve value judgments. Value judgments are, by definition, not refutable. You cannot prove that someone’s values are wrong. Declaring someone who delights in torturing animals and people to be wrong is a value judgment. The fact that most people agree with that value judgment still does not make it the same thing as proving the person wrong. People who have lost the ability to determine right from wrong due to a brain injury but who retain the ability to reason have been found to be unable to reach conclusions, even though their reasoning capacity is intact. Vulcans of the Star Trek saga, who supposedly are purely rational and unemotional, in other words, could not exist.

“You cannot reason absent value judgments. We make value judgments all the time. Those who claim not to make value judgments are simply arriving at judgments unaware (or are unwilling to fess up to the fact) that they are making value-based decisions; their decisions are hidden under the mask of 'neutrality.' This is not, however, the same as declaring that there is no such thing as objective reality and that there are only differing interpretations. The stance that I am arguing for here is called ‘postpositivism’ or ‘empiricism.’ Objective reality exists outside of my consciousness. Facts exist.

“The world outside of my head is measurable with objective instruments such as a thermometer and scale. Is a temperature of 33°F hot and uncomfortable? Most people think so, but some people like hot weather and find that temperature comfortable. Is two hundred pounds too heavy for a 5’2” person? That depends upon what culture we live in. Weight is a fact. What that fact means is subject to interpretation. For an NFL running back this might be a very good weight. A female of this weight in ancient Hawaiian society was considered sexy because she had access to a lot of food and was therefore privileged.

“We can declare with certainty that people need clean water to live and that if they do not have access to clean water that they will surely die. We can further say that more than twenty-five thousand children die every day in the world due to diarrhea and related conditions caused by the lack of access to clean water. Some people—such as myself—would consider this fact criminal, given the state of technology today. Other people regard the more than twenty-five thousand daily deaths as perhaps unfortunate, but no cause for alarm. Better those children than their own children, they think. Still others would regard this fact as the product of karma—these children did something bad in a previous life that is now causing them to die this way. The meaning of that factoid, in other words, varies widely. The objective world, as the existentialists argue, does not contain meaning. Meaning is something that human beings impose upon the objective world.” (Pp. 24-25)

Postscript:

On May 4, 2012 Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University wrote in The New Republic an essay entitled: "The Trouble with Scientism: Why History and the Humanities are also a form of knowledge." Kitcher's article is part of the general anti-scientism discourse that Pinker is referring to above. It is worthwhile looking at Kitcher's argument given that.

Kitcher argues, as his title indicates, that scientism's claim1 to being able to explain everything is a form of "scientific imperialism." It is a little difficult to determine whether Kitcher is referring to scientism or science in his essay as he at one point explicitly states that he is referring to scientism and not science, yet the entirety of his article strikes me more as a critique of the natural sciences. If you're going to criticize science, then call it science. Scientism as a term is really a pejorative and conflating science with scientism serves no useful purpose.

Kitcher says:

"The emphasis on generality inspires scientific imperialism, conjuring a vision of a completely unified future science, encapsulated in a 'theory of everything.' Organisms are aggregates of cells, cells are dynamic molecular systems, the molecules are composed of atoms, which in their turn decompose into fermions and bosons (or maybe into quarks or even strings). From these facts it is tempting to infer that all phenomena—including human actions and interaction—can 'in principle' be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions."

There are two different elements here that I believe Kitcher is conflating that should be separated out and made distinct. The reductionism that he declaims - the idea that all complex processes can be explained by simpler elements - is appropriate to criticize. The effort to explain everything by going smaller and smaller (e.g., trying to develop a theory of everything by finding tinier and tinier particles) is not going to produce a general theory of everything. Systems operate on different levels of matter. Ulcers, for example, can be understood in part on the level of cellular behavior but cellular behavior does not in turn illuminate other dimensions in play such as the psychology of the person who is developing ulcers.

Physicists engaged in the attempt to develop a "theory of everything," at least those who I am familiar with, are not also claiming that should they develop this theory of everything that it would supplant the other arenas of human knowledge such as philosophy. I have no quarrel with Kitcher's primary argument that positivists (not his term but more useful a term than "scientism") are wrong to think that they can be value-free and that they can eventually eliminate the need for (or even more vaingloriously, that they have already supplanted) history and the humanities. But an essay entitled "The Trouble with Scientism..." that really is about a certain strain within science would be better titled something like "The Problem with Positivism." Otherwise your valid arguments get mixed in with strawman arguments and reduce the effectiveness of your argument.

--

1 "Scientism is a term used, usually pejoratively,[1][2][3] to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.[4] It has been defined as 'the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.'[5] An individual who subscribes to scientism is referred to as a scientismist.[6][7][8][9][10] The term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism[11][12] and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,[13] philosophers of science such as Karl Popper,[14] and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam[15] and Tzvetan Todorov[16] to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.[1]   " (Wikipedia

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