PZ Myers Criticizes Steven Pinker’s Scientism – Pot and Kettle?

On August 6th, Steven Pinker, the well-known Psychology Professor from Harvard, had an article in New Republic entitled Science is Not Your Enemy, in which he lambasts those who decry scientists for propounding scientism.  You’d expect rebuttals of Pinker to come from the likes of Wesley J. Smith who indeed took Pinker to task in an article in National Review Online, which we discussed here at UD as well.  You wouldn’t expect attack from your own side, however, but that is precisely what P.Z. Myers has done on his popular anti-ID blogsite Pharyngula in a post entitled Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it.  Never one to mince words, PZ launches right in:

When I heard that Steven Pinker had written a new piece decrying the accusations of scientism, I was anxious to read it. “Scientism” is a blunt instrument that gets swung in my direction often enough; I consider it entirely inappropriate in almost every case I hear it used.

Here’s the thing: when I say that there is no evidence for a god, that there’s no sign that there is a single specific thing this imagined being has done, I am not unfairly asking people to adopt the protocols of science — I am expecting to judge by their own standards and expectations. They are praying to Jesus in the expectation of a reward, not as, for instance, an exercise in artistic expression, so it is perfectly legitimate to point out they aren’t getting anything, and their concept of Jesus contradicts their own expectations. When I mock Karen Armstrong’s goofy deepities praising her nebulous cosmic being, I’m not saying she’s wrong because her god won’t fit in a test tube or grow in a petri dish, but because she’s doing bad philosophy and reasoning poorly — disciplines which are greater than and more universal than science.

Science is a fantastic tool (our only tool, actually) for probing material realities. Respect it for what it is. But please, also recognize that there’s more to the human experience than measurement and the acquisition of knowledge about physical processes, and that science is a relatively recent and revolutionary way of thinking, but not the only one — and that humans lived and thrived and progressed for thousands of years (and many still do, even within our technological culture!) without even the concept of science.

From this opening statement, you’d think PZ actually thinks that there may indeed be other legitimate ways of knowing besides the deliverances of science.  But you’d be mistaken as PZ himself seems a bit confused on the very point he’s trying to make.  In the very next paragraph he writes:

Scientism is the idea that only science is the proper mode of human thought, and in particular, a blinkered, narrow notion that every human advance is the product of scientific, rational, empirical thinking. Much as I love science, and am personally a committed practitioner who also has a hard time shaking myself out of this path (I find scientific thinking very natural), I’ve got enough breadth in my education and current experience to recognize that there are other ways of progressing. Notice that I don’t use the phrase “ways of knowing” here — I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information.

It’s the curse of teaching at a liberal arts university and rubbing elbows with people in the arts and humanities all the time.

It’s that sentence “I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information” that throws a monkey wrench into his entire argument.  He seemingly wants to take Pinker to task for being guilty of the sin of scientism, but in the process seems to promote the core idea of scientism anyway.   His confusion stems from trying to parse a distinction between “ways of progressing” and “ways of knowing”.  Well, how does one make progress without knowledge?  In the context in which he’s using the term progress here, it seems clear that Myers is thinking of the progress of humanity over the long march of history – the advances of science, culture, language, communication, social structures and so forth that have marked the progress of human history.  It is difficult to see how one can contemplate that progress without recognizing that each step of the progression entailed an increase in knowledge…of learning something…that is to say knowing something new that allowed the progress to take place.  Thus the distinction Myers wants to make between “progressing” and “knowing”, doesn’t really amount to much, as the progressing depends on the knowing.

Note Myers next comment:

Which is why I was disappointed with Pinker’s article. I expected two things: an explanation that science is one valid path to knowledge with wide applicability, so simply applying science is not the same as scientism; and an acknowledgment that other disciplines have made significant contributions to human well-being, and therefore we should not pretend to be all-encompassing.

Even though the rest of Myers post sounds a bit like Wesley J. Smith’s critique (referenced above), this statement, indeed the remainder of the post,  is completely at odds with his earlier statement when Myers makes clear that he thinks that knowing comes from the “empirical collection of information”…that is to say through science (in the way that Myers and those of his ilk understand and use the term)…the very point of Pinker’s article that Myers wants to criticize.  For both Myers and Pinker, the bottom line is that there really isn’t any legitimate way to acquire real knowledge other than through science and its methods(there’s that scientism again!)  To his credit, Myers does elevate and even praise the contributions to human thought and well-being from other academic quarters, but it is against the backdrop that real knowledge can only come from science.  For Myers to rail against Pinker on this matter is little more than the pot calling the kettle black…they both advocate for and practice scientism.  Myers  concludes with:

I’ve been harsh to Pinker’s claims, but you probably shouldn’t see it as a disagreement. Read further into his essay, if you can bear it, and you’ll discover that rather than rejecting scientism he proudly claims it for his own. To accuse him of scientism is no insult, then; it’s only the term for what he happily embraces.

I don’t think I’ll join him in that isolation tank, though.

Not to worry, we don’t see it as a disagreement – its the pot and kettle thing!

 

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

11 Responses to PZ Myers Criticizes Steven Pinker’s Scientism – Pot and Kettle?

  1. 1

    Myers: “I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information.”

    I assume Myers believes that he has knowledge that this statement is true. One wonders which empirical collection of information caused him to know that the empirical collection of information is the only source of knowledge.

    Can it possibly be true that Myers does not understand the bootstrapping at the core of his statement? It seems so, and that never ceases to astound me.

  2. Barry – All the more astounding considering how he (along with most of the vocal atheists and promoters of “rationality”) claim the high road of logic and reason! Guess he missed class the day logical fallacies were reviewed and discussed!

  3. Contrary to what PZ Myers, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and other Darwinian atheists may think, there are certainly more sure ways to ‘know’ something is true, i.e. sure ways to knowledge, than through science alone. One more sure way to ‘know’ something is true, that comes readily to my mind, is through personal experience. For instance I can, through studying facts, know merely that a person exists. But through personal experience I can know, not only that the person exists, but know the person as a intimate friend. In much the same way I can, through science, know that God exists, but on the deeper level of personal experience, I can say for a fact that I know God is real because I know Him as a intimate friend who cares deeply for me because I have experienced His grace in my life on a personal level.,,, I know my personal testimony as to how God moved in my life will not impress too many people who are convinced that science is the only true way to knowledge, but perhaps the personal testimony of Dr. James Tour, who is one of the top ten cited chemists in the world, and his testimony as to how God personally touches his life on a day to day basis, may help some atheists realize that there is a much more sure way to knowing that something is true than through merely scientific experimentation and investigation:

    Science & Faith — Dr. James Tour – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdU5ojTpyzg

    Also of note, Dr. James Tour, who builds the most sophisticated man-made molecular machines in the world, will buy lunch for anyone who can explain to him exactly how Darwinian evolution works:

    Top Ten Most Cited Chemist in the World Knows That Evolution Doesn’t Work – James Tour, Phd. – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCyAOCesHv0

    Also of related interest as to ‘knowing’ God is real through personal experience, being a more sure knowledge than knowing God is real through science, is the following fact.

    ‘Afterlife’ feels ‘even more real than real,’ researcher says – Wed April 10, 2013
    Excerpt: “If you use this questionnaire … if the memory is real, it’s richer, and if the memory is recent, it’s richer,” he said.
    The coma scientists weren’t expecting what the tests revealed.
    “To our surprise, NDEs were much richer than any imagined event or any real event of these coma survivors,” Laureys reported.
    The memories of these experiences beat all other memories, hands down, for their vivid sense of reality. “The difference was so vast,” he said with a sense of astonishment.
    Even if the patient had the experience a long time ago, its memory was as rich “as though it was yesterday,” Laureys said.
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/09/.....periences/

    A Doctor’s Near Death Experience Inspires a New Life – video
    Quote: “It’s not like a dream. It’s like the world we are living in is a dream and it’s kind of like waking up from that.”
    Dr. Magrisso
    http://www.nbcchicago.com/on-a.....31791.html

    NDE’s ‘being more real than real’ is exactly what one would expect if God, a personal being, is the source of all reality exactly as Theists hold, and that a person actually does personally experience His presence upon bodily death.,, Sadly the atheistic researchers of the preceding study, even though their own ‘science’ had revealed to them the fact that Near Death Experiences are ‘more real than real’, (experiences which they were trying to disprove by the way), were unable to accept the conclusions what their own science was telling them and tried to rationalize the results away. i.e. So much for ‘scientism’ being the only reliable source for truth if it conflicts with a persons metaphysical beliefs huh?

    Related notes:

    Another interesting argument comes from the leading philosopher and Christian, Alvin Plantinga—he asked, what evidence does anyone have for the existence of other people’s minds? He argued cogently that the evidence for God is just as good as the evidence for other minds; and conversely, if there isn’t any evidence for God, then there is also no evidence that other minds exist—see God and Other Minds, Cornell University Press, repr. 1990.
    http://creation.com/atheism-is-more-rational

    The Heretic – Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? – March 25, 2013
    Excerpt: ,,,Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.
    http://www.weeklystandard.com/.....tml?page=3

    Music and Verse:

    Nicole C. Mullen – My Redeemer Lives – Video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj-pZQ_XjyU

    Revelation 3:20
    Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

  4. PZ Myers just gets better and better.

    Here’s the thing: when I say that there is no evidence for a god, that there’s no sign that there is a single specific thing this imagined being has done, I am not unfairly asking people to adopt the protocols of science — I am expecting to judge by their own standards and expectations.

    And what if they do judge by their own standards and expectations and come away realizing that God does exist? He is basically stating that because science cannot analyze God–which is ludicrous to a believer, since God is the creator and establisher of anything we call “science” today–then God doesn’t exist. It’s a classic non sequitur.

    They are praying to Jesus in the expectation of a reward, not as, for instance, an exercise in artistic expression, so it is perfectly legitimate to point out they aren’t getting anything, and their concept of Jesus contradicts their own expectations.

    Some people pray to Jesus to thank him for what he’s done on their behalf. Not everyone views Jesus or God as magical wish-granting genies in the sky. But this fallacious reasoning is apparently how PZ envisions God. He’s utterly wrong.

    And what about those who pray for something and receive it? Does that mean God still doesn’t exist? Does PZ have knowledge of all religious people and everything they pray for? Of course not.

    When I mock Karen Armstrong’s goofy deepities praising her nebulous cosmic being, I’m not saying she’s wrong because her god won’t fit in a test tube or grow in a petri dish, but because she’s doing bad philosophy and reasoning poorly — disciplines which are greater than and more universal than science.

    Really? I always liked reading Armstrong’s books. I’d be interested to know what is incorrect about her reasoning or philosophy. Other than the fact that she believes in God whereas PZ does not.

    Science is a fantastic tool (our only tool, actually) for probing material realities.

    Logical error here. I could describe making tea the scientific way by explaining the temperature of water, the boiling point, etc. However, I could also explain making tea because I wanted to drink tea. Both explanations are correct.

    I can see material realities like the sunset and have artistic appreciation for it. I understand Rayleigh scattering and why the sky’s the color it is, but that does not diminish my enjoyment of the view.

    I can see the stars in the skies at night (pretty dark around here, no city lights) and appreciate their beauty and majesty without ever once thinking about light years or the space-time continuum or the relative size of Betelgeuse compared to our sun.

    Scientism is the idea that only science is the proper mode of human thought, and in particular, a blinkered, narrow notion that every human advance is the product of scientific, rational, empirical thinking….I’ve got enough breadth in my education and current experience to recognize that there are other ways of progressing. Notice that I don’t use the phrase “ways of knowing” here — I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information.

    So, in other words, scientism is bad except when I do it. I wonder if he realizes, utilizing is education and current experience, that he just contradicted himself.

  5. Barb – Exactly my point! PZ is seriously confused. Oh, and his new book The Happy Atheist is now out. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be little happiness in it, and probably a lot of ranting. But unlike others, I plan to actually read it BEFORE I review it.

  6. So atheists can be happy and intellectually fulfilled? Awesome.

    I’ve given up reading the atheist literature. I tried. I made it through Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and partly through <Letter to a Christian Nation. I had to put the latter book down because I couldn’t breathe; I was laughing so hard at his logical errors.

  7. Yeah, they need to be reclassified into the humorous fiction section, I think!

  8. ‘PZ Myers just gets better and better.’

    Love the elliptical barb, Barb (not to mention my own fortuitous homophone).

  9. Let it not be incipient dementia. Even PZ.

  10. Ahem…

    Which is why I was disappointed with Pinker’s article. I expected two things: an explanation that science is one valid path to knowledge with wide applicability, so simply applying science is not the same as scientism; and an acknowledgment that other disciplines have made significant contributions to human well-being, and therefore we should not pretend to be all-encompassing.

    …okay well. Apart from contradicting what he previously wrote, this quote standing on its own, as nice as it sounds, seems pretty darn vague.

    Were I in a colloquy with the man, I would ask him, “Would you mind being more specific, Prof. Meyers? What other valid paths are there, and what knowledge have those who followed them acquired? What are the other disciplines you are talking about, and what are some of the contributions they have made to human well-being, and why do you rate these contributions as significant?”

    To which I would add, “I’m not trying to bait you, I am honestly interested in learning more about your thinking along these lines.”

  11. Pots and kettles are at least generally useful.

Leave a Reply