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Science vs. the Humanities, Round III

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Steven Pinker:

In his commentary on my essay “Science is Not your Enemy,” Leon Wieseltier writes, “It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art.”  I reply: It is not for Leon Wieseltier to say where science belongs. Good ideas can come from any source, and they must be evaluated on their cogency, not on the occupational clique of the people who originated them.

Wieseltier’s insistence that science should stay inside a box he has built for it and leave the weighty questions to philosophy is based on a fallacy. Yes, certain propositions are empirical, others logical or conceptual or normative; they should not be confused. But propositions are not academic disciplines. Science is not a listing of empirical facts, nor has philosophy ever confined itself to the non-empirical.

Why should either discipline stay inside Wieseltier’s sterile rooms? Does morality have nothing to do with the facts of human well-being, or with the source of human moral intuitions? Does political theory have nothing to learn from a better understanding of people’s inclinations to cooperate, aggress, hoard, share, work, empathize, or submit to authority? Is art really independent of language, perception, memory, emotion? If not, and if scientists have made discoveries about these faculties which go beyond received wisdom, why isn’t it for them to say that these ideas belong in any sophisticated discussion of these topics?

For their part, philosophers beginning with Plato have theorized about scientific questions of how the human mind works—not as a sideline, but to provide indispensable premises for their philosophical arguments. (Wieseltier considers this idea “absurd”; I consider it obvious.) Hume’s analysis of the nature of causality, to take just one example, was enmeshed with his theory of the psychology of causality. Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hartley, Berkeley, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill, among others, also interwove their philosophical arguments with hypotheses about perception, cognition, emotion, and sociality. (Yes, including Kant; see Patricia Kitcher’s Kant’s Transcendental Psychology for an explication of Kant as a cognitive psychologist, though of course that’s not all he was.) It is anachronistic to say that these scholars were doing nothing but “philosophy,” and that the discoveries of people who today hang their hats in buildings labeled “neuroscience” or “psychology” or “anthropology” have no relevance to the issues they raised.

While anointing himself defender of the humanities, Wieseltier repeatedly issues crippling diktats on what humanistic scholarship cannot do—such as make progress. Contrary to his pronouncement that “the vexations of philosophy …are not retired,” that “errors [are] not corrected and discarded,” most moral philosophers today would say that the old arguments defending slavery as a natural institution are errors which have been corrected and discarded. Epistemologists, too, might say that their field has progressed from the days when Descartes could argue that human perception is veridical because God would not deceive us.

Wieseltier bristles at my suggestion that science is distinguished by the value it places on the thorough-going intelligibility of the world—on the relentless search beyond the explanation of a phenomenon for a still deeper explanation of the explicans. Yet he legislates that the humanities may tolerate no such curiosity. The humanities are “autonomous,” he stipulates, and explanation must stop with “the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding.” Begging the question, Wieseltier thinks it is incriminating that I “deny that the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final,” that I “transgress the borders between realms,” that I “reject the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world.” Yes, I do all these things, and fortunately, so do many of the humanities scholars with whom I have interacted over the decades, who have no interest in halting their search for explanation at Wieseltier’s border fence.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that even the most science-indifferent humanities scholar would accept Wieseltier’s insistence that the interpretation of works of art must be restricted to pure “meaning” without attention to “technical matters.” They would be surprised to learn, for example, that meter and sound in poetry, lighting and perspective in painting, pitch and rhythm in music, and other phenomena at the border of art and science are irrelevant to understanding the meaning of a work. But then Wieseltier’s incuriosity extends to an examination of meaning as well. Tautologies such as “a man’s experience of his father is his experience of his father” seem to satisfy him, while genuinely startling new insights from the sciences—the theory of parent-offspring conflict, the paucity of lasting effects of the family environment on the formation of personality, the constructive nature of autobiographical memory—are flattened in his telling to “a hunt for phenotypes,” of “outcomes fixed by chromosomes.” Talk about reductionism!

Wieseltier is also offended by the suggestion that another value of science is worthy of emulation, namely that the acquisition of knowledge is hard and often requires laborious empirical tests. Let me explain what I mean with an example. In defending religion, Wieseltier writes, “Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.” Really? How does he know? Wieseltier writes as if his say-so is all we need to move on to the next step of his argument. Let’s put aside the astonishing “have ever” part of the claim, and confine ourselves to the present. Recent polls show that between 30 percent (Gallup) to 60 percent (Rasmussen) of Americans believe that the Bible is “the actual word of God to be taken literally, word for word”—hardly “a small minority.” Figures for believers in the world’s other scriptural religions are even higher: According to a recent Pew survey, between 54 and 93 percent of Muslims in the countries surveyed believe that the Quran should be read “literally, word for word.” The point is not that Wieseltier is factually mistaken in this assertion. The point is that a more scientific mindset would recognize that an empirical proposition demands empirical verification. The era in which an essayist can get away with ex cathedra pronouncements on factual questions in social science is coming to an end.

The very possibility of a synthetic understanding of human affairs, in which knowledge from the sciences can contribute to the humanities without taking them over, is inconceivable to Wieseltier. Beginning with its tasteless title, his article steadily escalates the paranoia, tilting at the position I explicitly disavow, namely that science is “all there is,” that it is “a sufficient approach to ... the human universe,” that the humanities must “submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them,” that they must be the “handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival,” that a “a scientific explanation, will expose the underlying sameness” and “absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm.” If you are a scholar in the humanities, and fear that my essay advocates any of these lunatic positions, I am here to tell you: relax. As I wrote, and firmly believe, “the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.”

Wieseltier doubts my sincerity when I note that the benefits of a consilience between the sciences and humanities go both ways. He bizarrely translates my observation that “the sciences [can] challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists” as “scientists think well and humanists write well." So let me explain the observation with a few examples of two-way traffic just from my own research. Theories of the mental representation of the visual field must accommodate the fact that the reproduction of linear perspective in painting is not cognitively natural but was a late invention in the history of art. A major theory of auditory scene analysis receives important confirmation from the phenomenon of virtual polyphony in music. Theories of mental imagery must account for the observations by analytical philosophers that images lack the geometric detail of visual percepts, and that even with such detail they would be unsuited to represent abstract concepts. Research in psycholinguistics depends heavily on philological scholarship on the history of words and grammatical constructions in English and other languages. Theories of cognitive categorization begin with contrasting views on the nature of concepts from Aristotle and Wittgenstein. The science of human aggression has learned immeasurably from the history of crime, war, genocide, criminal punishment, and religious and cultural attitudes toward violence. Examples could be multiplied from the research of others.

What is at stake in this debate? Wieseltier seems surprised by the idea that scientific thinking should need defending, since “it is the humanities that are declining in America, not least as a result of the exaggerated glamour of science.” Yet for all its growth in the budgets and the real estate of universities, scientific thinking is still marginalized in the major arenas of opinion and influence, which are rife with statistical illiteracy, religious obscurantism, indifference to data, and the insularity of obsolescing academic fiefs.

Leon Wieseltier: 

Steven Pinker is correct: in the struggle to establish accurate and respectful relations between the sciences and the humanities, I am for a two-state solution. In this arena of tension, as in the other one, I believe that a one-state solution would involve the erasure of one of the realms, its distortion by, and subordination to, an authority that has no legitimate claim over it. I am amused to learn that Pinker regards the humanities as somehow the greater power in this confrontation; he seems to believe that the widespread ignorance of the sciences—why should they be spared the marginalization of knowledge in American culture?—has something to do with the defense of the humanities. Would it comfort him to note that we are not exactly a nation of humanists? In the fight for intellectual seriousness amid big media and big data, the sciences and the humanities are in fact on the same side. Darwin and Dante are both imperiled minorities. I am aggrieved by the scientific illiteracy of most Americans. I assume that Pinker feels the same way about their humanistic illiteracy. I am happy to have him in my foxhole. It’s going to be a long war.

But yes, I am ardently supportive of borders and fences. They clarify things, though they are hardly all we need to know. There is a basis in reality for the demarcations of the frontiers between the sciences and the humanities: they reflect the actually existing multiplicity of the realms, and their various degrees of incommensurability with each other. This seems entirely uncontroversial and inoffensive to me. I do not defend the integrities of the fields in a spirit of exclusiveness; not at all. The borders are porous, since human life and natural life are various and complicated. Pinker errs in thinking that I advocate that everybody “stay inside [their]sterile rooms.” I am against sterility. I am for adventure. I favor the free movement of ideas and people across borders. But I do not wish to exaggerate what is accomplished by the scientist in the kingdom of the humanities or the humanist in the kingdom of the sciences. 

Pinker’s ecumenicism is too happy with itself. The encounters are nice, and they are certainly (in the imperishable words of a friend of mine) conference-building measures; but we must be strict about what is and is not illuminated by them. When Pinker rhapsodizes about “a synthetic understanding of human affairs,” I am unmoved. I see no need for such a synthesis, insofar as it elides or erases significant distinctions or harbors totalistic aspirations. Unified field theories may turn scientists on, but they turn humanists off: it has taken a very long time to establish the epistemological humility, the pluralistic largeness of mind, that those borders represent, and no revolution in any science has the power to repeal it. (I know, I know: I am speaking ex cathedra again, whereas Pinker says nothing, he does not order a grilled cheese sandwich, without a solid foundation in empirical research.) The issue is not how good the science is, but how much even the best science can explain.

What Pinker cannot bring himself to accept is that his beloved sciences, even when they do shed some light on aspects of art and literature, may shed little light and—for the purpose of understanding meaning (Pinker’s scare quotes around “meaning” may indicate a scare)—unexciting or inconsequential light. I gave the examples of the chemical analysis of a Chardin painting and the linguistic analysis of a Baudelaire poem. Many other examples could be given. “The theory of parent-offspring conflict”—I hope the grants for that particular breakthrough were not too large—is quite superfluous for the explication of Turgenev or Gosse. Nothing in the physical world, in the world of the senses, in the world of experience, can be immune from or indifferent to the categories of the sciences; but there are contexts in which scientific analysis may be trivial. That is not to say that science is trivial, obviously. But the belief that science is supreme in all the contexts, or that it has the last word on all the contexts, or that all the contexts await the attentions of science to be properly understood—that is an idolatry of science, or scientism. Pinker is wrong: I am not censoring scientists. They can say anything they want. But everything they say may not be met with grateful jubilation. So let the scientists in—they are already swarming in—to the humanities, but not as saviors or as superiors. And those swaggering scientists about whose intentions Pinker wants humanists to “relax”: they had better prepare themselves for a mixed reception over here, because over here the gold they bring may be dross. 

A word about progress and the humanities: Pinker, like the good scientizer that he is, misses my point. I did not argue that there is no such thing as moral progress. But “the eradication of slavery as a natural institution,” in Pinker’s condign example, was not achieved only in the name of new concepts. Alongside the philosophical innovations of modern liberalism were ancient notions of freedom, Hebrew and Greek. Those notions (hypocritical in both cases—but then the same may be said of much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism) were still pertinent; whereas no element of Greek or Hebrew cosmology matters a whit for contemporary scientific inquiry. The absence of progress is not always evidence of obscurantism or decadence. Sometimes valuable ideas and instruments were established early, and inherited.

And a word about religion: Pinker is right to point out that most religion is folk religion. Intellectually sophisticated religious views are not held by most of the people who hold religious views, just as intellectually sophisticated scientific views are not held by most of the people who hold scientific views. The reputation of science should not be held hostage to folk science. Of course Pinker denies that there can be intellectually sophisticated religious views: “a more scientific mindset would recognize that an empirical proposition demands empirical verification.” So it would—but a less scientific, and more capacious, mindset would recognize that religious faith is not just a set of empirical propositions, and that it is not inconsistent, when intelligently interpreted, with empirical verifications. There remains the question of why one would wish to interpret intelligently texts that seem in some ways unintelligent—but that is a much larger discussion and a much deeper disagreement, which Pinker and I can pursue when we meet at the Consilience Café, where I will insist that we split the check.