I had originally intended to devote this post to discussing some of the minutiae in Massimo Pigliucci’s essay. In light of some of the comments on the previous post, however, I’ve decided it would be more useful to speak generally about why I get so annoyed when charges of scientism are casually thrown around.
I actually agree with some of Pigliucci’s specific criticism’s of Krauss. For example, in his exchange with Julian Baggini, Krauss said this:
Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.
Yep, that’s pretty bad. I’m not sure why the notion that morality must be entirely a scientific question has become a thing among people like Krauss and Sam Harris. Surely it’s just obvious that you need something more than scientific facts alone to resolve moral questions. If you think of any moral question that actually causes controversy, it is clear that the debate is never primarily about facts. It’s about the different weights to assign to competing values, and no amount of data can tell you how to assign those weights. Science obviously informs moral reasoning, and the distance between is and ought is often very small, but they are separate nonetheless.
But here’s the thing. Usually when someone makes a statement you think is mistaken, the proper response is, “He’s wrong! Here’s why…” You don’t normally accuse him of being in thrall to an ism. That’s a totally different level of criticism. That’s saying the person is not just wrong, but he is in some way deluded. He has sacrificed his good judgment in the service of a blinkered ideology. It’s a criticism of his character as much as it is of his opinions.
Also, invariably in this context, it seems out of all proportion to the provocation. Politely suggesting that Krauss be a bit more nuanced in his discussions of morality seems sufficient here. Pointing a finger and shrieking “Scientism!” seems excessive. If E. O. Wilson or Alexander Rosenberg get a little too enthusiastic about reductionism (and I’m not saying they do), then just point out the error and move on. Charging them with promoting a blinkered, anti-humanistic, ideology just seems uncalled for, and frankly kind of dickish.
If that were the only problem, though, I wouldn’t really care. It’s just that sometimes I take a break from doing this blog to look around, and what I see is a country devouring itself in irrationality. When I think about annoying things that debase the level of moral discourse in our society, people being overenthusiastic about science is not what comes to mind. Instead I think of people being ignorant of relevant scientific facts, or people relying on religious approaches to morality. Those are the real threats. Nobody is making bad decisions because they think moral reasoning will eventually be done by examining brain scans. But lots of people are making bad decisions based on scientific ignorance, or because they are applying nonscientific ways of thinking.
In fighting those threats, it doesn’t help to have philosophers inventing novel reasons for being contemptuous of science or scientists. It especially doesn’t help when a handful of dubious statements from a small number of writers in a few obscure books get presented as an all out attack on the humanities, from scientists so arrogant they think anything that isn’t science is useless. My objection here is the same as the one I explored in this recent post, in which I criticized philosopher John Dupre for using hyperbolic language, of a sort that would be helpful to creationists, when the arguments he was making did not merit any such language. Such is the case here, albeit on a smaller scale.
The humanities are under attack, but not because of anything scientists are doing. It certainly has nothing to do with anything Philip Kitcher discussed in this article for The New Republic. (That was the one where he made the strange argument that scientism is false because the humanities are much more like sciences than is sometimes acknowledged, as we have discussed.)
No, the real threat is the corporate mindset that has largely taken over in academe. Cash-strapped schools are practically competing with each other to see who can cut the humanities more quickly. Do you see any scientists celebrating this development? Even one? Is there even one single scientist cheering the budget slashers on the grounds that schools are finally getting their priorities straight? Of course not. So why the zeal to turn any slight against philosophy into the leading edge of a massive anti-humanities campaign? Why are some humanities professors looking for imaginary enemies to fight, when they have so many real ones to deal with?
There is no threat from scientism. None. This country is in absolutely no danger of putting too much reliance on science, and it is not scientists who think the humanities have no value. So knock it off!