As cognitive neuroscience increases its dominion, its proponents have made grandiose claims for its utility. There is nothing new about this. Scientists have always claimed that their new discoveries could save the world.
These claims have often been greeted with doubt and even derision. Some have labeled scientists’ pretense to solve all of the great mysteries of life as scientism.
Science has made great progress. Through the intermediary of technology and industrialization, it has vastly improved the quality of human life over the past few centuries. Surely, that does not mean that we should allow science or scientists to dictate personal behavior, public policies and God knows what else.
Yesterday in The New Republic Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker took out after those who dared claim that he or any of his colleagues was practicing scientism. He offered a spirited defense of the value of science and explained the lessons that we ought to be drawing from it. Shortly thereafter, Ross Douthat took to his New York Times blog to offer a fine rejoinder. Both essays are well worth your attention.
The issues are complex and difficult. Pinker begins by crediting science for the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. He neglects to mention the Industrial Revolution, but we will forgive the oversight.
He opens his essay thusly:
The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature.
Among these great thinkers were, Pinker says, Descartes and Hume.
While it was certainly true that Descartes was a scientist, his most important philosophical works involved deducing the existence of a pure metaphysical subject, a mind. If you read his Meditations you will discover that his effort did not, in any way use scientific reasoning. In fact, Descartes separated the mind from reality-driven perceptions and sensations. The Cartesian mind had nothing to do with empirical evidence and was not verifiable.
As for Hume, one recalls vividly the eighteenth century British philosopher’s distinction between science and ethics. If science is the realm of what is and ethics is the realm of what we should or should not to, the two are not at all the same.
Science can tell you what happens when you shoot a bullet into a vat of jelly. It can also tell you want happens when you shoot a bullet into someone’s head. It does not tell you whether you should or should not do the one or the other.
Scientific information may aid our moral reflections, but the question of whether or not to shoot a gun remains outside of its scope. After all, there is a significant moral distinction between shooting someone who is minding his own business and shooting someone who is lunging at you with an axe.
Where Descartes said that the only thing we know to an absolute certainty is that we are thinking, Pinker claimed that science has provided us with a bevy of indisputable facts.
Among them he lists these:
We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes.
Even if we grant this, what precisely is the relevance? Surely, these facts are intended to undermine any human claims to self-importance, but religions have always been at war against excessive human pride.
As for knowing that we all belong to the same species, thus that we are all human beings, how important is that really?
Unless we are true-believing humanists like Steven Pinker, we normally do not define our identity in terms of our biology. We are Americans or Canadians, we belong to the Harvard faculty or to the legal profession; we belong to this or that religious congregation.
Our social being cannot be defined by our membership in the species because being human, in the biological sense, does not require anything of us. You do not cease to be human if you behave badly and you do not become more human if you behave well. For all intents and purposes your membership in the human species requires nothing of you.
Pinker does try to sneak the moral dimension back in by defining people as members of a community of humanists who believe that their ethical beliefs are informed by science.
Pinker is aware of the clear distinction between science and ethics, but he downplays it:
Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.
What does that mean: "hem in the possibilities?" The possible consequences of your actions are always somewhat limited. We use such information to make better decisions. But that does not mean that science determines our decisions. Even if science tells you exactly what happens when you shoot someone in the head, it still does not tell you whether or not you should do it.
Clearly, Galileo stripped ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, but why does that necessarily strip religious leaders of their credibility of matters of faith and morals, that is, on matters that are not based on fact.
Surely, Pinker is correct to disparage many religious practices. One would feel more comfortable if he also called out some of the strange beliefs that scientists have been peddling since the dawn of time. He also should have listed the positive contributions that religions have made to human community.
Still, he does not seem to recognize that you cannot prove or disprove the existence of God scientifically. How precisely would you go about applying science to an entity that contains no measurable or testable characteristics? How would you demonstrate that an afterlife does or does not exist?
If you limit your study to metaphysical objects like ideas, objects that no one has ever seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled… how can you gain scientific knowledge about objects that cannot be measured or tested?
Pinker understands these difficulties, so he uses a sleight-of-hand when he tries to show how science can help generate the moral principles that he prefers.
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.
All things considered, the one does not in any way follow from the other. The facts of science do not force us to do anything.
As Douthat notes, Pinker is practicing his own form of scientism. He is using the authority of science to promote and impose his own moral principles.
If we are as small and insignificant as science says we are, why would we not think it futile to waste our precious time taking responsibility for the welfare of everything that moves? And where in science does Pinker find the concept of responsibility anyway?
Happily for Pinker science seems to eliminate the metaphysical notion of free will. This makes it much easier to force people to do what you want them to do.
Pinker has taken a remarkable leap of faith. Normally, we care more for friends than strangers. We normally defend our families and our nations before we defend anyone else’s family or nation. Why should we humans feel responsible for every blooming member of the species, to say nothing about the planet?
Isn’t Pinker promoting his own personal form of idolatry?
After paying lip service to these concerns, Pinker skips effortlessly into the notion that scientific facts “militate” for the establishment of a new code of human conduct that must “maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” Can we really maximize our own "flourishing"or even happiness while working to maximize the flourishing of frogs and turtles?
In his words:
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.
It might well be the case that humanistic morality, the kind that arises when people lose their place in their nations and local communities, is taking over the democratic world today. But, does that mean that it should be?