A lot has been written about Steven Pinker’s article about “scientism,” most of it mocking his grandiose overreach in passages like this:
These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?
And, I have to admit, this is eminently mock-able. At the same time, though, I don’t think this is really any more hubristic than, say, this fatuous bit of nonsense from Leon Wieseltier, who boldly addressed a commencement address to a narrow subset of the graduating class–only the humanities majors– and proclaimed:
If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen.
So, you know, in keeping with Newton’s Laws, every bit of grandiose idiocy is matched with an equal and opposite bit of grandiose idiocy. Though, despite being published in the same (online) magazine, Wieseltier didn’t come in for anywhere near the mockery Pinker did, presumably because nobody knew enough about him to have a pre-existing dislike of his bombast.
So, really, this has been a pox-on-both kind of summer in the Two Cultures. If you were to put a gun to my head and make me choose between them, I’d seriously question your life choices even within the field of hypothetical violent thuggery, but I’d probably come down on Pinker’s side. The reasons why are bound up in work-related frustration, but I think in a sense they come down to the flip side of Sean Carroll’s plea to discard the whole notion of “scientism.” Sean writes that “The word “scientism” doesn’t helpfully delineate a coherent position,” and I basically agree with that. But I think the same can be said about whatever it is that Wieseltier is arguing for— it’s not actually a coherent… anything.
While science is most assuredly not without its flaws, at least I’m fairly clear about what it does: scientists ask questions, construct models, test those models against observations, and refine them as needed. It’s a process that moves in fits and starts, with blind alleys and false steps and occasional catastrophic misdeeds, but at least it’s moving. My esteem for academic humanities is at a low ebb at the moment, mostly because they don’t seem to be going anywhere, or even particularly concerned about the lack of motion. Wieseltier and his fellows spend endless words congratulating themselves for grappling with Big Questions, but they seem curiously uninterested in ever answering any questions, even simple ones. (For the record, “It’s complicated” or jargon-laden versions thereof is not an answer in any meaningful sense.) The mere act of talking about important issues– or, in some cases, talking about the importance of talking about important issues– seems to be regarded as a praiseworthy end unto itself, and the idea that one might try to reach some sort of a conclusion or make a decision seems to be regarded as a quaint anachronism.
I find this absolutely maddening. So while Pinker’s piece is unquestionably overdone, I end up with marginally more sympathy for him than most of his opponents. So, you know, he can get one of the lesser poxes– chicken or cow, something easily treated with readily available medicines. But on the whole, I think I enjoyed the two hours or so of pointless wailing SteelyKid treated us to today more than I’ve enjoyed any of the entries in this latest round of Two Cultures sniping. In the end, it’s all just another meeting of the Department of Persecution Studies. Which, as much as I try to stay out, just keeps sucking me back in…