In Defense of a Modest Scientism

Not surprisingly, Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now , has already generated significant controversy.  Since I haven’t read the book yet, I won’t comment on the book itself. Suffice it to say, it does seem that Pinker’s critics (see for example here and here ) are raising some valid points in arguing that Pinker has oversimplified matters in his portrayal of the Enlightenment. I will add that while I may not necessarily view Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology as the enemy, I thought that Pinker’s arguments in The Blank Slate were at times simplistic in his portrayal of the concept of culture as it has traditionally been used in the Social Sciences. There is in fact, a kind of naive scientism that conflates scientific analysis in the Social Sciences with biologically based analyses along with a casual assumption not just that science has all the answers, but that the physical and natural sciences can be applied straight to matters of values and ethics. This kind of naive scientism does indeed deserve our skepticism, if not our outright dismissal.

But there is also a critique of this kind of naive scientism that is echoed in the above critiques of Pinker. It goes something like this: science is sometimes wrong and also potentially oppressive when it tries to claim too much. Science may be able to tell us what the chemical structure of a substance is, or about the origin of species, but it can’t answer basic questions about values. I disagree.

Of course, as is often the case, part of the problem is definitions. The word science can be, and is. used in many ways. Sometimes people use it as a shorthand for technology or medical practice. Sometimes people mean it simply in reference to the physical and natural sciences. On other occasions, people will say something like “science says it so it must be so…”. But unless we are talking about topics such as the chemical structure of a substance, the physical and natural sciences are not always going to  provide us with clear, unequivocal answers.

There is however another way in which the word science is used and that is to define an approach to making a claim that one’s beliefs are true or false. I’m not going to try and resolve the The Demarcation Debate here. But there is at a minimum a distinction to be made for genuine inquiry and science that is done well, and inquiry that is carried out with the truth already determined or viewpoints that sound kind of sciencey and are presented with the rhetoric of science, but deny the actual power thereof. Young Earth Creationists, advocates of Intelligent Design, magical healers, and many others, will often present their views as “scientific”. Similarly, there are times and instances when real scientists get it very wrong. But as my favorite philosopher Susan Haack has argued, there is a continuity between the method of good genuine science doing its absolute best to get it right, and day to day inquiry that is carried out with a desire to genuinely know the truth. If you want to know if the Chiropractor or the massage therapist can help you where the physical medicine practitioner has failed to follow through, you should want to know if those therapies will actually, truly work.

But what then of the field of ethics? Can the method of reason and experience (note the contrast to Pinker’s reliance on pure reason) actually tell us what the distribution of income should be  or whether or not we should treat other human beings as we want to be treated ourselves? In other words, can we really have an ethics that is grounded in the Enlightenment rather than revelation, mysticism or romanticism? I think we can. That’s not to say that we can “prove” through empirical evidence that our current distribution of income is unfair, though empirical evidence can certainly help us understand how much income inequality has increased and its links to multiple negative social trends. In other words, I take partial issue with Hilary Putnam’s rejection of the fact-value distinction. There is at least a common sense distinction to be made. But what actual genuine inquiry based on reason and experience can do for us is persuade us that there are implications of one ethical system compared to another. In other words, value statements are not meaningless. They are meaningful precisely because we can have a rational discussion about values.

Of course, that kind of reasoning will never persuade a sociopath or a skeptic that we should follow the golden rule. On the other hand, neither will pointing to a book or a claim to mystical experience for that matter persuade skeptics and sociopaths, because there is no argument to persuade those people. And there is no argument to persuade the committed idealogue or religious zealot that terror in the name of utopia will never yield utopia.

The kind of scientism I am advocating here is one that I believe deserves our support over the methods of religious dogma and counter enlightenment.


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