Saturday, August 10, 2013

Scientism: Pinker vs. Douthat

"Scientism" is a charge frequently aimed at those who choose a reductionist view of human nature. Stepnen Pinker thinks it's an accusation without substance - a "boo" word as he calls it. His essay in the New Republic is a forthright defense of most of the evolutionary, reductionist, and scientific ideas usually attacked as "Scientism" and a agressive rejection of notions that reliable guides to ethical behavior can be found in conventional spiritualistic notions. Among some material quoted by Douthat:

...We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

Douthat clearly hates all this, but he doesn't muster much of an attack on it. The best he can manage is an argument that the utilitarian humanism Pinker advocates is hardly the only morality one might choose in the absence of supernatural guidance.

And his invocation of “the scientific facts” to justify what is, at bottom, a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche is the pretty much the essence of what critics mean by scientism: Empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious about the ways in which human beings can rationally disagree.

Of course he submits exactly zero evidence for any of the "charges" in his ultimate sentence. What, if anything, does he mean "empirically overconfident"? Does it mean anything except trusting experience over mysticism? "Intellectually unsubtle" is an insult that lacks content or, if I may say, intellectual subtlety, and "deeply uncurious" is merely another almost content free insult. Does it mean anything except refusal to take mysticism seriously?