Still More Voices…

First, a very good definition of scientism here:
“Scientism is a philosophical thesis that belongs to the sub-discipline of epistemology. It is not a thesis in science, but a thesis about science.  The thesis in its strongest form is that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge generated by the (hard) sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and their offshoots. The thesis in a weaker form allows some cognitive value to the social sciences, the humanities, and other subjects, but insists that scientific knowledge is vastly superior and authoritative and is as it were the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to knowledge. On either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary.  Not a handmaiden to theology in this day and age; a handmaiden to science.”

This goes back to my main criticism of Pinker.  He conflates “science,” which is a method and practice, a tool really, with “scientism” which is an epistemology within the broader and all-encompassing worldview of philosophical naturalism.  It is Pinker who needs the humanities and philosophers to point this out as so many are doing.  It is not science that needs the humanities—it is those scientists who are under the impression they are just talking about science, when in fact they are pushing a philosophy as “fact,” as objective “science,” that need the humanities.  So Pinker has it exactly backwards: The humanities and philosophy are not your enemies: An impassioned plea to Science (However, if you are really pushing scientism as science, then yes, you will be called on it.  Get over it and quit accusing those who call you on it of being against science).

Lots of straw-men noted here

The conflation of science and scientism noted here

Misconceptions and a “blind obedience to mere empiricism” noted here

From here a nice quote:
“I see. Because humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history, 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, and we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, therefore God does not exist and therefore Christianity is false?  That’s a stupid argument. I easily accept all these scientific findings and have no problem remaining a Christian.”

A three card trick noted here

Pushing past the proper boundaries noted here

A defense of Jackson Lears here and a reminder that, “The dream of reason bred real monsters.”

Finally, I find this response to Pinker to be very significant because the writer describes himself as a “Godless infidel” and a “philosophical materialist.”
For some, I guess the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Pinker continues.  For many others, it would appear to be quite a wide consensus against scientism (but for science); a consensus that should give every person whose world-view is summed up by the designation “scientism,” pause.  

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13 Responses to Still More Voices…

  1. Burk Braun says:

    On a different topic, TNR keeps going with a piece on Stanley Fish you might enjoy.


  2. Darrell says:

    Thanks for sharing. Interesting.


  3. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Isn't it lovely to see such a variety of demolition jobs! Poor Pinker indeed. The guy must really be an idiot!

    But, more seriously, there is a pattern here and it shows what a bad idea it was for Pinker to try to rehabilitate the term “scientism” by redefining it. Just as you do in this post, many reviewers give their own definition of scientism – as something eminently radical – and then accuse Pinker of defending their own view of what scientism is (while Pinker explicitly tries to redefine it as something else). This has the unfortunate effect of moving the debate from what Pinker actually says to a debate on scientism.

    Are there misrepresentations? Of course, there are. Some we have discussed already. I pointed out one more in your “More Voices” post and you haven't yet commented on it. To be sure, that a reviewer misrepresents Pinker does not mean that Pinker is right, just that the reviewer makes a lousy job.

    Perhaps we can paraphrase the characterization of postmodernism that Burk fished out of one of the reviews: all reviews of a text reflect the prejudices and desires of their authors.


  4. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    If the issue for you is people redefining the term “scientism,” perhaps then you should tell us how you define the term and then tell us whether or not you think Pinker falls into that category. If he does, then such makes these other peripheral criticisms moot and validates the substance, the main assertions, posited by his critics. If he doesn’t, then you must adhere to a definition of scientism quite different than the majority. If that’s the case, who is doing the redefining?

    By the way, the great majority of his critics were not making personal attacks–no one was saying Pinker is an idiot or stupid. We all know Pinker is an intelligent person. They were criticizing his arguments.


  5. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I think Pinker should not have used the term at all, as he is not defending the radical position that most associate with the term “scientism”. In fact, in an interesting piece, Sean Carroll argues that the term should not be used at all. I essentially agree with him, so I will refer you to his text – in which he also makes a few comments on Pinker's article.

    On the subject of postmodernism, I'd like to know what you make of what one of the reviewers says: the “animating assumption” of postmodernism is that All truth claims–whether scientific, religious or political—reflect the prejudices and desires of those who make them.

    Does that make sense to you? If so, how does that work out in a simple example? For instance, what are the prejudices and desires involved in the claim that the earth is round?


  6. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    “I think Pinker should not have used the term at all, as he is not defending the radical position that most associate with the term “scientism”.”

    Well, that is contested. I think he is defending that radical position. And a great majority of these writers did as well (writers from all points of the compass) based upon their understanding of the term. There was wide agreement. So, again, who is re-defining the term?

    I didn’t address the postmodern aspect because it wasn’t the subject of the post, plus I already have in many places.

    “If so, how does that work out in a simple example? For instance, what are the prejudices and desires involved in the claim that the earth is round?”

    This is a straw-man argument. No postmodernist of the type I adhere to believes facts like the earth being round to be matters of interpretation. And the quote you note was coming from the context of addressing Pinker’s scientism, which, it is asserted, is a matter of prejudices and desires. The writer wasn’t addressing empirical facts, like the sun being hot. He was addressing scientism. Again, scientism is not science, it is an epistemology, within the greater narrative of philosophical naturalism.

    If you want to backtrack, here is the post I did on postmodernism:, but I really want to stick to the main points of these posts.


  7. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I didn't expect you would agree with the extreme position expressed in the review – and I'm glad you don't. But the author (one John Horgan) is pretty clear that, according to his notion of postmodernism, all truth claims, including scientific claims, reflect prejudices and desires. The paragraph where this occurs concerns Pinker's alleged lack of understanding of postmodernism and is not about scientism as such. Perhaps Horgan confuses scientific claims (“the earth is round”) with pseudoscientific or moral ones (“eugenics is good”). On the other hand, perhaps there is a form of postmodernism that actually makes this kind of claim.

    In any case, back to Pinker, then.

    Whether or not Pinker's redefinition of scientism succeeds or not, he is clearly trying to do redefine it. Therefore, his use of the term, however misguided, cannot be taken to mean he endorses what others mean by scientism. Neither is piling on negative critics good enough. The answer must be found in the text itself and if Pinker is so obviously guilty of the scientistic sin, it should be quite easy to point out where in the text he is taking such an extreme position.

    You state in “More Voices” that Pinker claims that science should have the last word even in the areas of meaning, purpose, and morality. This is as good a claim as any that, if true, would qualify Pinker as a radical. So, my question to you is: where in the text does Pinker actually makes such a claim?


  8. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    I believe John Horgan is referring to “all” truth claims at the level of theory and philosophy. And his position is not extreme at all but recognized by most, which is, that at the level of theory and philosophy we all are making decisions holistically, and there are psychological, cultural, educational, sensibility, and a myriad other factors that go into our truth claims. This doesn’t mean we are not objective, it simply means that we are situated contextual beings and see things from a perspective.

    Like all his critics, I think his entire essay, not just a sentence or paragraph lend itself to the claim he is saying science should have the last word. If you think he would need to use those exact words to say such, I think you
    you kid yourself.

    I agree with these same critics, some who were atheists, materialists, conservative, liberal, left, right, scientist, philosopher, Christian, who all thought he was saying something along these same lines.

    You will forgive me I hope if I agree with the consensus over you on this one. By the way, you never answered one of my questions: “Still wondering if you believe knowledge should include aspects of wisdom, meaning, and purpose with those aspects being as or even more, important than the factual information?”


  9. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    John Horgan may have meant something like what you describe but this is not what he wrote. His statement clearly applies to all scientific truth claims – which makes my question about the prejudices and desires involved in claiming the earth is round relevant. Of course, this would be a question for him, not for you.

    Perhaps he didn't write what he meant, for some reason of his own. However, had he wanted to say something along the lines of your comment, it would have been very easy for him to do so. Why didn't he?

    Same issue with Pinker, really. You cannot provide simple, clear evidence from his text to support your claim that he believes science has the last word “in the areas of meaning, purpose and morality” but you know – somehow – that this is what he meant to say, or that this is what he believes. Even if the text does not say so explicitly and even when it hints at the opposite position.

    What can I say? I can only comment a text according to what it says, not according to some alternative meaning the author could hypothetically have in mind. I have no way to know that.


  10. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    Well, I guess you will have to ponder how all those different well-respected critics got Pinker wrong.

    Perhaps you haven’t looked very closely at Horgan’s assertion. Remember, that Pinker was not defending scientism because it’s the best method of noting the earth’s roundness (which is science—not scientism), he was defending the view that it should comment, philosophically, on all areas of enquiry including meaning and purpose. As he berates religious views and espouses the superiority of science (straw-man by the way), all I did, following his critics, was to simply to connect those dots, which led most of us to conclude he would want more than to simply “comment” but have the last word as well. And that is not a stretch at all.

    Horgan is responding to that mentality; he is not using Pinker to claim that even the roundness of the earth is a matter of interpretation influenced by desire and prejudice. He made very clear what he was talking about:

    “Pinker never seems to have understood postmodernism. Postmodern scholarship, like science itself, can be done well or badly, but its animating assumption is simple: All truth claims–whether scientific, religious or political—reflect the prejudices and desires of those who make them. Claims that become dominant in a culture often serve the interests of powerful groups.
    Social Darwinism and eugenics are two especially egregious examples of pseudo-scientific ideologies that reflected the racism, sexism and classism of proponents. Pinker depicts Social Darwinism and eugenics as historical aberrations that had little or nothing to do with science…”

    Do you for a second think, in speaking of “claims that become dominant” and that often “serve the interests of powerful groups,” he was speaking of claims like the earth being round? How ridiculous.

    He makes it very clear what he is talking about and he gives examples: Social Darwinism, eugenics, racism, sexism, and classism.

    So I think there is clear evidence from the text–and I think he was clear.

    Any more thought to the question I asked?


  11. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I read this whole paragraph as a response to Pinker's statement that “the humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism” (quoted in Horgan's previous paragraph). Horgan answers, “well, Pinker does not understand postmodernism, here's what it's about” – and he then provides his characterization. Seems to me pretty clear he's talking about postmodernism as a whole. Then, he gives a few examples of what he means, admittedly of non scientific claims.

    Now, you read it differently. Fine. It may mean Horgan is a sloppy writer or that one of us is bad reader (or both of us). Perhaps the text is just ambiguous and admits contradictory interpretations. The same goes for Pinker's text, of course.

    The larger issue is one of clarity and of how difficult it is to be understood. We have expectations and preconceived notions about what a writer probably means and, unfortunately, these may get in the way when we try to understand a text. This, for me, is far more interesting than anything Pinker or Horgan may say. As I said before, I don't care for Pinker as subject matter.



  12. JP says:


    Concerning your question about knowledge, you have to explain what you mean by “knowledge should include”. Definitions must be useful, clear and as unambiguous as we can make them but there is no “right” or “wrong” definition of a word.

    Is wisdom included in the idea of knowledge? One definition of knowledge is “skills acquired by a person through experience or education”. I suppose that, if we stretch this a bit, wisdom can be seen as a set of skills and thus would count. But, frankly, I don't quite see what this is about.

    As to the relative importance of wisdom and friends compared to factual knowledge, this is all dependent of context. Nothing is “more important” in an absolute sense. One needs to specify some kind of scale or a set of criteria used for comparison and, then only, can we figure out what is more important than what. Otherwise, the question is meaningless.


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