Home » News, Philosophy, Science » Did we mention that Harvard’s Steve (scientism rules!) Pinker was getting it on all sides? Leon Wieseltier now weighs in

Did we mention that Harvard’s Steve (scientism rules!) Pinker was getting it on all sides? Leon Wieseltier now weighs in

For previous sides, here.

For Wieseltier at New Republic here:

A few weeks ago this magazine published a small masterpiece of scientizing apologetics by Steven Pinker, called “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Pinker utters all kinds of sentimental declarations about the humanities, which “are indispensable to a civilized democracy.” Nobody wants to set himself against sensibility, which is anyway a feature of scientific work, too. Pinker ranges over a wide variety of thinkers and disciplines, scientific and humanistic, and he gives the impression of being a tolerant and cultivated man, which no doubt he is. But the diversity of his analysis stays at the surface. His interest in many things is finally an interest in one thing. He is a foxy hedgehog. His essay, a defense of “scientism,” is a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones. By the time Pinker is finished, the humanities are the handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival.

Pinker tiresomely rehearses the familiar triumphalism of science over religion: “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures … are factually mistaken.” So they are, there on the page; but most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures have evolved in their factual understandings by means of intellectually responsible exegesis that takes the progress of science into account; and most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare. Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence. Like many sophisticated people, Pinker is quite content with a collapse of sophistication in the discussion of religion.

Yet the purpose of Pinker’s essay is not chiefly to denounce religion. It is to praise scientism. More.

While we are here, science was always making progress, in the civilization whose works Wieseltier cites against Pinker. It was a fairly recent idea, espoused by people like Pinker and Sam Harris, to make it the fount of all knowledge.

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14 Responses to Did we mention that Harvard’s Steve (scientism rules!) Pinker was getting it on all sides? Leon Wieseltier now weighs in

  1. What has this Pinker actually patented? What has he done that will remember his name in the future? If nothing why does he know better then those who have done things!
    I’m not dismissing him or his ideas but saying has he won his spurs as a thinker to be noted.
    Or jusy more publicity for those who use their position to fight Christianity and possibly its influence on society.
    Pinker is a creation of left wing media and establishment.
    Nothing personal against him but is his position on merit as opposed to election.

  2. 2
    Kantian Naturalist

    While we are here, science was always making progress, in the civilization whose works Wieseltier cites against Pinker. It was a fairly recent idea, espoused by people like Pinker and Sam Harris, to make it the fount of all knowledge.

    That’s a highly arguable point. The idea that there is a kind of knowledge different from, higher than, more valuable than (etc) scientific knowledge is readily traced to Plato and to Aristotle, but let’s not forget that they were (in part) responding to the Pre-socratic naturalists like Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Democritus.

  3. The problem as I see it is that “science” is merely a tool; it is not a body of knowledge in and of itself. It is a methodology that allows us to understand a myriad of things in a purely reductionist framework. It can tell us why the hues and colors of the artists’ paints appear as they do to the eye of the beholder. It cannot make sense of why these same paints arranged in a certain manner on the canvas evoke feelings of triumph, tragedy, contentment, and despair. Pinker’s mistake is not unusual, but it is a mistake nonetheless. As cliche as it is, it is probably summed up best by saying that he misses the forest for the trees.

  4. Franklin:

    From the available reports from Springer it sounds more like the submitted papers deviated significantly from the prior accepted prospectus on what the actual deliverables would contain.

    evidence? if you have any.

  5. Contrary to Pinker’s low view of the humanities (and humans in general i.e. infanticide) the fact of the matter is that science, which Pinker supposedly treasures so much, has now shown Pinker’s base naturalistic philosophy to be false:

    the argument for God from consciousness can be framed like this:

    1. Consciousness either preceded all of material reality or is a ‘epi-phenomena’ of material reality.
    2. If consciousness is a ‘epi-phenomena’ of material reality then consciousness will be found to have no special position within material reality. Whereas conversely, if consciousness precedes material reality then consciousness will be found to have a special position within material reality.
    3. Consciousness is found to have a special, even central, position within material reality.
    4. Therefore, consciousness is found to precede material reality.

    Four intersecting lines of experimental evidence from quantum mechanics that shows that consciousness precedes material reality (Wigner’s Quantum Symmetries, Wheeler’s Delayed Choice, Leggett’s Inequalities, Quantum Zeno effect):

    “I’m going to talk about the Bell inequality, and more importantly a new inequality that you might not have heard of called the Leggett inequality, that was recently measured. It was actually formulated almost 30 years ago by Professor Leggett, who is a Nobel Prize winner, but it wasn’t tested until about a year and a half ago (in 2007), when an article appeared in Nature, that the measurement was made by this prominent quantum group in Vienna led by Anton Zeilinger, which they measured the Leggett inequality, which actually goes a step deeper than the Bell inequality and rules out any possible interpretation other than consciousness creates reality when the measurement is made.” – Bernard Haisch, Ph.D., Calphysics Institute, is an astrophysicist and author of over 130 scientific publications.

    Preceding quote taken from this following video;

    Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness – A New Measurement – Bernard Haisch, Ph.D (Shortened version of entire video with notes in description of video)

    Quantum physics says goodbye to reality – Apr 20, 2007
    Excerpt: They found that, just as in the realizations of Bell’s thought experiment, Leggett’s inequality is violated – thus stressing the quantum-mechanical assertion that reality does not exist when we’re not observing it. “Our study shows that ‘just’ giving up the concept of locality would not be enough to obtain a more complete description of quantum mechanics,” Aspelmeyer told Physics Web. “You would also have to give up certain intuitive features of realism.”

    A team of physicists in Vienna has devised experiments that may answer one of the enduring riddles of science: Do we create the world just by looking at it? – 2008
    Excerpt: In mid-2007 Fedrizzi found that the new realism model was violated by 80 orders of magnitude; the group was even more assured that quantum mechanics was correct.

    The Galileo Affair and the true “Center of the Universe”
    Excerpt: I find it extremely interesting, and strange, that quantum mechanics tells us that instantaneous quantum wave collapse to its ‘uncertain’ 3D state is centered on each individual conscious observer in the universe, whereas, 4D space-time cosmology (General Relativity) tells us each 3D point in the universe is central to the expansion of the universe. These findings of modern science are pretty much exactly what we would expect to see if this universe were indeed created, and sustained, from a higher dimension by a omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal Being who knows everything that is happening everywhere in the universe at the same time. These findings certainly seem to go to the very heart of the age old question asked of many parents by their children, “How can God hear everybody’s prayers at the same time?”,,, i.e. Why should the expansion of the universe, or the quantum wave collapse of the entire universe, even care that you or I, or anyone else, should exist? Only Theism, Christian Theism in particular, offers a rational explanation as to why you or I, or anyone else, should have such undeserved significance in such a vast universe. [15]

    Psalm 33:13-15
    The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men. From the place of His dwelling He looks on all the inhabitants of the earth; He fashions their hearts individually; He considers all their works.

    Quantum Enigma:Physics Encounters Consciousness – Richard Conn Henry – Professor of Physics – John Hopkins University
    Excerpt: It is more than 80 years since the discovery of quantum mechanics gave us the most fundamental insight ever into our nature: the overturning of the Copernican Revolution, and the restoration of us human beings to centrality in the Universe.
    And yet, have you ever before read a sentence having meaning similar to that of my preceding sentence? Likely you have not, and the reason you have not is, in my opinion, that physicists are in a state of denial…

    Also of note:

    The Origin of Science
    Jaki writes: If science suffered only stillbirths in ancient cultures, how did it come to its unique viable birth? The beginning of science as a fully fledged enterprise took place in relation to two important definitions of the Magisterium of the Church. The first was the definition at the Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215, that the universe was created out of nothing at the beginning of time. The second magisterial statement was at the local level, enunciated by Bishop Stephen Tempier of Paris who, on March 7, 1277, condemned 219 Aristotelian propositions, so outlawing the deterministic and necessitarian views of creation.
    These statements of the teaching authority of the Church expressed an atmosphere in which faith in God had penetrated the medieval culture and given rise to philosophical consequences. The cosmos was seen as contingent in its existence and thus dependent on a divine choice which called it into being; the universe is also contingent in its nature and so God was free to create this particular form of world among an infinity of other possibilities. Thus the cosmos cannot be a necessary form of existence; and so it has to be approached by a posteriori investigation. The universe is also rational and so a coherent discourse can be made about it. Indeed the contingency and rationality of the cosmos are like two pillars supporting the Christian vision of the cosmos.

    Moreover, as shocking as it may seem to some naturalists, I hold that not only was Christianity necessary for the birth of modern science, but that modern science will find its ultimate resolution in Christianity:


  6. I wonder at your resilience, Philip.

    Pinker must be a cretin, who deliberately remains uninformed about such findings as you cite above and/or is incapable/unwilling to draw the only logical inferences from them. Why no one is able to hold their feet to the fire in this matter of the incontrovertible proof of theism, at the very least, absolutely baffles me totally.

    So many absolutes in my wee contribution – which is why I am in awe of Philip’s resilience.

  7. In his book, “A Brief History of Everything,” Ken Wilber (who holds advanced degrees in science and has studied Eastern mysticism), posits that to know a certain discipline well, it’s important understand it in the context of another discipline. Leonard Bernstein argued that very point in his Harvard Lectures in 1973. Wilber refers to the Platonic concept of truth, beauty and goodness as “the Big Three.”

    Wilber writes: “So the dignity of modernity began to slide into the disaster of modernity: the Big Three didn’t just differentiate, they tended to dissociate…because the Big Three were not harmoniously balanced and integrated—they were ripe for plunder by more aggressive approaches…Science began to crowd out consciousness and aesthetics and morals.”

    Mr. Pinker seems to miss that point entirely. The humanities have been plundered by a number conceits that fail to understand the importance of what Schiller called “aesthetic knowledge.” Schiller, BTW, wanted to study religion and become a minister. Kant couldn’t easily “reason” why art elicits emotional responses, but nevertheless acknowledged that the emotions one experiences in observing beauty were valid and universal. Bach and Brahms, both good Lutherans, spoke of connecting to the Almighty for inspiration. Music being something having divine origins and purpose (as well as a scientific component–the overtone series) was a common understanding going back to the Sumerians. It still is for many artists.

  8. Pinker writes, ““the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures … are factually mistaken.”

    The above-quoted statement is best described as ten pounds of stupid in a five pound bag.

    Let’s examine some facts found in the Bible that science confirms.

    1. The Mosaic Law commanded the Israelites to dispose of sewage in a covered hole “outside the camp.” (Deuteronomy 23:12, 13) If they touched a dead animal or human, the Israelites had to wash with water. (Leviticus 11:27, 28; Numbers 19:14-16) Lepers back then were quarantined until a physical examination confirmed that they were no longer contagious.—Leviticus 13:1-8.

    “No one can fail to be impressed by the careful hygienic precautions of the Mosaic period.”—Manual of Tropical Medicine, by Drs. Aldo Castellani and Albert J. Chalmers

    2. The earth is suspended in space. “He is stretching out the north over the empty place, hanging the earth upon nothing.”—Job 26:7, stated about 1613 B.C.E.

    A spherical earth held in empty space without any visible or physical means of support—does not that description sound remarkably modern?

    In the original Hebrew, the word for “nothing” (beli-mah?) used here literally means “without anything.”7 The Contemporary English Version uses the expression, “on empty space.” This is contrary to the concept of the heavenly spheres that Aristotle popularized.

    3. The earth is round. “There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.”—Isaiah 40:22, written about 732 B.C.E.

    The Hebrew word chugh, here translated “circle,” may also be rendered “sphere.”3 Other Bible translations read, “the globe of the earth” (Douay Version) and “the round earth.”—Moffatt. The Bible writer Isaiah avoided the common myths about the earth. Instead, he penned a statement that was not threatened by the advances of scientific discovery.

    4. Water moves in a cycle. “All the winter torrents are going forth to the sea . . . To the place where the winter torrents are going forth, there they are returning so as to go forth.”—Ecclesiastes 1:7, written before 1,000 B.C.E.

    5. The universe is governed by laws. “I [Jehovah] had appointed . . . the statutes [or, laws] of heaven and earth.”—Jeremiah 33:25, written before 580 B.C.E.

    Does anyone, including Dr. Pinker, wish to debate any of the above statements? Does anyone doubt that they are factual?

    The problem with scientism is that it seeks to be the final authority on all matters. Scientific proof is limited by man’s ability to discover sufficient evidence and to interpret data correctly.

    The Bible is not a science textbook. It is, however, a book of truth. And when the Bible writers touch on matters related to science, their words are accurate and completely free from ancient “scientific” theories that turned out to be mere myths. Science is thus no enemy of the Bible.

    Many truths about God are beyond the scope of science. To illustrate, a scientist may be able to describe every molecule in a chocolate cake, but will his analysis reveal why the cake was made or for whom? For answers to questions like that—which most people would regard as the more important ones—he needs to consult the person who baked the cake.

    Similarly, science “gives a lot of factual information,” wrote Austrian physicist and Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, “but it is ghastly silent about all . . . that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us.” This includes, he says, “God and eternity.”

  9. Absorbing post, Barb. Thank you.

    What was it you said about there being 47 chemicals in dust or the ‘dust of the earth’? Something like that? Could you, please, re-post for me that point you were making? I believe it was in connection with man being ‘made from the dust of the earth.’ Some such biblical quotation.

  10. Axel @ 9: It’s from an article I had read on Adam and Eve.

    The book Nanomedicine states that the human body is made up of 41 chemical elements. These basic elements—carbon, iron, oxygen, and others—are all present in the “dust” of the earth. Thus, as Genesis states, humans truly are formed “out of dust from the ground.”

    We do know that all the elements of which the human body is composed are to be found in the “dust from the ground.” A chemist once claimed that an adult human body is 65 percent oxygen, 18 percent carbon, 10 percent hydrogen, 3 percent nitrogen, 1.5 percent calcium, and 1 percent phosphorus, with the remainder being made up of other elements.

  11. Thank you, Barbara, patron saint of miners and the artillery. Or maybe I’m confusing you with another Barbara.

  12. I thought St. Barbara was the patron saint of engineers. Or maybe I’ve been reading too many Dilbert cartoons.

  13. Probably, Barb. I know there were some other saintly patronages ascribed to her. I’ll check.

  14. “Since the universe is 13.8 billion years old, a day cannot mean 24 hours, at least not for the intellectually serious believer”
    – Leon Wieseltier

    I think the above statement, in the context of the linked article, undermines Wieseltier’s credibility.

    If I asked him to explain to me the underlying theory, assumptions, logic, and observations from which the 13.8 number is derived, I doubt he could do so. He is, like those he is criticizing, simply accepting the number on faith. And he doesn’t see the irony.

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