Human Exceptionalism

Pinker’s Confused Defense of Scientism

Steven Pinker is at it again. This time, he defends “scientism,” against its critics both left and right, yours truly included, in the New Republic. And he urges intellectuals of the humanities to embrace the truths of science as guides to meaning and purpose. 

But as most defenders of scientism do, he mixes the proverbial apples and oranges. From, “Science is not the Enemy:”

The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value…The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. 

And what, pray tell (if he will excuse the phrase) does Pinker claim is the ”worldview given to us by science?” 

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. 

Humans have always looked out for their own welfare and negotiated codes of conduct. But why should we care about the thriving of humans or sentient beings? What, in “science” tells us that is important?  The Judeo/Christian worldview tells us to love our neighbor. I suspect Pinker would agree, but one is left to question why. It’s merely an assertion.

And notice how Pinker pulls a fast one to get out of the box canyon into which he is heading. Some of the most vicious and deadly regimes in recent human history were not dogmatic in the religious sense. Think Stalin’s USSR. Think Mao’s PRC. These tyrannies arose out of an explicitly atheistic and materialistic world view–even (falsely) claiming the mantle of “science” to attack the very approaches to society against which Pinker inveighs. 

That’s why he throws ”dialectics” into the mix–because of its connection to communism But dialectics is not dogma. Rather, it is “the art or practice of arriving at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments.” Dialectics was picked up by the Marxists and used as a means of deconstructing opposing world views. It is a tool for negotiating codes of conduct. In other words, dialectics has much in common with the very scientism that Pinker advocates,

Pinker thinks “science” leads to humanism:

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.

Quite the contrary, the so-called humanism of the Pinkers, Richard Dawkins, and the Peter Singers of the world tend decidedly toward utilitarianism, which in turn, leads to anti humanism because it established moral value based on capacities, not on equal value for all humanity. Add in Singer’s animals deserve “equal consideration” utilitarianism, and you have a prescription for the instrumental use of living human beings

Like many fellow scientism adherents, Pinker goes back and forth between science and morality. For example:

Moreover, science has contributed—directly and enormously—to the fulfillment of these values. If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science.

Based on science, what is wrong with slavery? It’s just the powerful prevailing over and forcing their way on the less powerful–a common feature of the natural world.

Moreover–and ironically–the ending of slavery and the defeat of authoritarian fascism was in defense of the Judeo/Christian moral philosophy embodied in the “all men are created equal” credo of the Declaration of Independence.

In fact the eugenics embraced by the totalitarian fascists that we defeated in the first half of the last century claimed a scientific basis based, in part, on a malign application of Darwinian principles as a justification for their abhorrent practices and acts. In fact, I think one could safely conclude that the ideology of these evil movements was steeped in scientism.

Pinker’s scientism is more Judeo/Christian in outlook–albeit dropping the theism and castigating the philosophical source. But historically, Judeo/Christianity’s embrace of the intrinsic dignity of all people was fundamental in creating the ”de facto morality” of Western Civilization. That wasn’t the only contributor, to be sure. But it is an essential ingredient. All the scientism in the world can’t change that.

Of course, science isn’t the enemy Nobody said it is.  (In fact the title gets perilously close to “the anti-science canard.”)  Indeed, it’s a wonderful tool, as Pinker illustrates abundantly throughout the article (along with a helping of straw men). It can inform–but absolutely not replace–philosophy, ethics, values, and yes, religion in crafting a humane and beneficent society. 



The Latest