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Materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett rushes to defense of scientism

Readers will recall that Harvard cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker has been getting it from all sides for his defense of scientism, as has neuroscientist and author Sam Harris.

(Scientism: The belief that science can and should dictate morality instead of being governed by it. For some irrational reason, possible research subjects object to the former view.)

Arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins has apparently chosen to weigh in about something else so it was left to hardline materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett to defend Pinker at Edge. Readers can judge whether this kind of thing will help much: From Edge editor Brockman,

Given Wieseltier’s screed, we can all be thankful that this is happening. His clueless attack is evidence that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know. It’s no accident that Prospect Magazine has scientists (and Edge contributors) Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, and Jared Diamond at, or near, the top of their “World’s Greatest Thinkers 2013″ poll (“a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age”). Or that The Guardian has proclaimed Edge the world’s smartest website.

That is all too bad for Edge, not for its intellectual competitors.

From Dennett:

Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the “scientizers” (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can’t defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

This, from a defender of Darwinism who even seems to be trying to look like Darwin, at the very time when real research is actually headed in the opposite direction (here, here, and here, just for example).

Well, John Brockman, he is yours.

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11 Responses to Materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett rushes to defense of scientism

  1. Hmmmm….

    You can’t defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

    Would Dennett say the same thing about the encroachment of evolutionary biology by Intelligent Design?

  2. chirp.

  3. 3

    I wonder somewhat at Dennett’s criticism of Wieseltier, since it does not neatly fit with Pinker’s unbridled defense of scientism. Dennett, unlike Pinker and Wieseltier, is an extremely good philosopher, and who certainly has absorbed a deep appreciation of what the humanistic approach can (and cannot do) from Gilbert Ryle (Dennett’s D. Phil. adviser) and Wilfrid Sellars.

    The key move in the article, as I see it, is that philosophers need to appreciate the empirical inquiries relevant to the philosophical questions they are raising — it can’t be done ‘in the armchair’, as Wieseltier seems inclined to think. Rather:

    Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences.

    If a philosopher is going to work up an adequate theory of causation, time, and space, he or she will need to spend a lot of time mastering the relevant physics and mathematics; likewise, if a philosopher is to work on morality, free will, consciousness, and meaning, then she or he should examine what cognitive neuroscience has to say about those topics (insofar as it says anything).

    I do happen to think that there are real limits on what neuroscience can say about free will, morality, or consciousness — but I’ve studied a fair bit of neuroscience, and I read widely in philosophy of neuroscience, including Dennett, Churchland, and Flanagan.

    Point is, there’s a difference — all the difference in the world — between taking the time to do the hard work of mastering the relevant science and determining how it affects some topic of the perennial philosophy and magisterially opining that the sciences had better keep their grubby little hands off of the perennial philosophy.

  4. You can’t defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs.

    Huh? Isn’t that exactly how Dennett et al defended Darwinism against Phillip Johnson?

  5. 5

    For the curious: Wieseltier’s review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell can be found here, with Leiter’s commentary on the review here.

    As for this:

    Isn’t that exactly how Dennett et al defended Darwinism against Phillip Johnson?

    Not at all; they didn’t declare that Johnson (as a lawyer) didn’t have the authority to criticize evolutionary theory; they showed that his criticisms are spurious.

  6. From the OP:

    Given Wieseltier’s screed, we can all be thankful that this is happening. His clueless attack is evidence that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know.

    Ad hominem.

    It’s no accident that Prospect Magazine has scientists (and Edge contributors) Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, and Jared Diamond at, or near, the top of their “World’s Greatest Thinkers 2013? poll (“a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age”). Or that The Guardian has proclaimed Edge the world’s smartest website.

    Read Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals” and get back to me. Someone’s opinion is just that: an opinion. With no basis in fact.

    Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities.

    Hey, didn’t AVS post recently that problems begin when people who don’t understand a topic begin talking about it? Maybe that’s the problem here.

    He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds.

    What if the scientists refuse to be educated and simply declare themselves to be above all else, which is what Pinker is talking about? In Pinker’s view, even Dennett would have to find another line of work; he’s a philosopher while Pinker is a scientist. And, according to Pinker, science rules over everything else.

    The best of the “scientizers” (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds.

    And proof of this is…where, exactly?

    You can’t defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

    In other words, complete surrender to science. How about “no”? Does that work for you?

    Does Dennett comprehend that his views as a philosopher would be called into question by Pinker and other scientists? That he would no longer be considered an intellectual or anyone with an opinion worth listening to, because he is not a scientist? How stupid does one have to be to defend someone who is telling you (obliquely) that your opinion is worthless because you aren’t a scientist?

    I thought Dennett was smarter than that.

  7. 7

    Does Dennett comprehend that his views as a philosopher would be called into question by Pinker and other scientists? That he would no longer be considered an intellectual or anyone with an opinion worth listening to, because he is not a scientist? How stupid does one have to be to defend someone who is telling you (obliquely) that your opinion is worthless because you aren’t a scientist?

    I’d wondered something similar, so it occurred to me to go back to what Pinker actually wrote. Here’s a choice excerpt:

    The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.

    Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism.

    In light of that, Dennett’s defense of Pinker makes perfect sense.

  8. Not at all; they didn’t declare that Johnson (as a lawyer) didn’t have the authority to criticize evolutionary theory; they showed that his criticisms are spurious.

    You are bluffing.

  9. KN @ 7: Then the problem is that Pinker doesn’t understand what “scientism” is. Properly defined, it’s the belief that science is the true source of all accurate knowledge. He’s simply twisting the definition to fit his own ends, and it doesn’t work.

    The Free Online Dictionary gives us this:

    sci·en·tism (sn-tzm)
    n.
    1. The collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists.
    2. The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry.
    (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)

    1. the application of, or belief in, the scientific method
    2. the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation
    (Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003)

    Pinker’s stating that science can and will be in harmony with other disciplines like philosophy and humanism but, ultimately, science is the true authority on matters. This would render Dennett’s opinion meaningless.

  10. 10

    I presume that Pinker’s view can be gleaned from what he actually says, rather than from what anyone believes (for whatever reason) he should have said.

    KN @ 7: Then the problem is that Pinker doesn’t understand what “scientism” is. Properly defined, it’s the belief that science is the true source of all accurate knowledge. He’s simply twisting the definition to fit his own ends, and it doesn’t work.

    But notice that Pinker explicitly denies that scientism has any ‘proper definition’ and that, like the word ‘queer’, can be re-defined to suit his purposes:

    The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.

    And I hasten to point out that the idea that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems” are positions that Pinker himself describes as “lunatic” (and rightly so).

    He then goes on to explicitly deny all of the following:

    (1) “members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble”
    (2) “all current scientific hypotheses are true”
    (3) “an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities”
    (4) “physical stuff is the only thing that exists.”

    If you wish, by all means complain about Pinker’s use of the term “scientism” as a label for his view, but let’s be clear on the view itself.

  11. Kantian:

    You say that Dennett is a good philosopher. Perhaps you are referring to his “technical” philosophical writing, aimed at specialists? I have not read any of that. What I have read of his “popular” philosophical statements — regarding evolution, creationism, etc. — strikes me as pretty vulgar and demagogic atheism of the kind that’s been around for over 100 years — the same stale old arguments. If you hadn’t told me he was a good philosopher, I’d have assumed, based on several of his public statements, that he was at best a mediocrity.

    By the way, has Dennett ever criticized the writing of his ally Dawkins? Note that Ruse — another philosopher, and an unbeliever like Dennett — has very reasonably and very firmly publically upbraided Dawkins for his shallow and uninformed critique of religion. If Dennett is truly a good philosopher he should be able to see how bad Dawkins’s arguments about religion are, and he should see it as his intellectual duty to show the flaws in those arguments. But if he is blinded by his partisan agreement with Dawkins over atheism, he will let Dawkins’s pathetic rubbish pass without a comment.

    As for your “defense” of Pinker, well, I grant you that given Pinker’s definition of “scientism” his statement could make sense; but linguistic usage goes against Pinker. I’ve been reading about “scientism” for five decades now, and there is no doubt that Pinker’s attempt to rehabilitate the term with a positive meaning runs against common usage, both academic and popular. Whatever Pinker is defending, he should find some word other than “scientism” for a label for it. Otherwise he is simply contributing to intellectual and social confusion; people will war over words when they should be warring over issues.

    Pinker is another supposedly great atheist thinker whose public statements on popular issues I have found utterly underwhelming. The intellectual standards for celebrated public intellectuals these days seem to be abysmally low. A society in which Pinker, Harris, Dawkins, Provine, etc. are thought of as its “wise men” in human matters is a society that is in deep, deep trouble.

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