Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Against Domains: A Reply to Ms. Flint

Faithful reader and cherished friend M. Flint has a couple of comments on my last post.  I think the argument is interesting and important enough to devote a new post to it. 
Here is how I described Leon Wieseltier’s position in his anti-Pinker, anti-scientism argument in The New Republic, from my reply to Ms. Flint’s opening comment:
Wieseltier speaks not of scientists or the scientific community, but of science. He is clearly trying to limit the domain of topics into which science can legitimately inquire. This strikes me as wrong headed, for Aristotelian reasons. If you ask what a human being is, both a materialist scientist and a poet can offer answers: a cloud of molecules and a soul at odds with itself. These answers are not in opposition because they interpret the question in different ways. Occasionally, there will be intersections between their intellectual trajectories. What is the role of neurotransmitters in the capacity for love? Wieseltier wants to discourage such encounters. I think we should encourage them.
Ms. Flint replies in turn:
I read Wieseltier quite differently. In my view, he was not arguing so much that science should not ask questions about certain topics, but instead that it should not smother out other disciplines. He takes issue with the scientific community trying to make every great thinker into a “scientist” and thinks that the humanities have some claim to greatness. I think that that view is fair.  As I read Wieseltier’s article, it seems to me less like he is arguing that science should not ask questions about certain topics and more like it could not provide certain kinds of answers.
We do indeed read him differently.  Regarding the minor point, Wieseltier complains thusly:
Pinker’s essay opens with the absurd, but immensely revealing, contention that Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith were scientists.
I am not sure that any of these thinkers would recognize the contemporary division between science and philosophy and I think that Rousseau’s place on this list is dubious as he was a vociferous critic of the modern view (while being resolutely modern!).  At least the first three, however, were certainly representatives of the world view presented by modern science. 
As for the major point, here is Wieseltier:
What von Mises and Diamond—and Pinker—deny is that the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final. For these scientizers, they are not differences in kind; they are differences only in appearance, whereas a deeper explanation, a scientific explanation, will expose the underlying sameness. The underlying sameness is the presumption of scientism. The scientizers do not respect the borders between the realms; they transgress the borders so as to absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm. They are not pluralists.
I am grateful to Wieseltier for telling us how to describe partisans of “scientism” without calling them scientists.  I don’t know how to interpret that except as a claim that there ought to be sharp borders around the kinds of questions that scientists are allowed to ask. 
A similar argument is made by Dave Pruett at the Huffington Post. 
The violations of science's domain by religion are numerous, well known and egregious… 
Science's infractions are subtler but equally damaging to the human spirit. During an enlightening lecture in 2000 by religion scholar Huston Smith, I began to appreciate how science infringes on religion's domain. Smith thoughtfully distinguished science from scientism. The former is an investigative protocol; the latter is a religion, complete with dogma. Science is a formalized procedure for making sense of the world by studying its material properties, perceived through the awareness of the senses, albeit senses heightened by modern marvels such as the electron microscope, the Hubble Space Telescope or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Scientism (or scientific materialism), on the other hand, adds to science a statement of faith: The universe is only material.
Moreover, given the spectacular successes of science over the past three centuries, it is more than fair to acknowledge that science represents a powerful way to learn about the world. But scientism ups the ante: Science is the best (or only) way to make sense of the world. In short, scientism is to science what fundamentalism is to religion: cocksure and inflexible.
I disagree with Pruett’s description of science, which I think is hardly limited to material properties.  However, what he calls scientific materialism is a very well established philosophical position going back to the ancient Greek atomists and such thinkers as Anaxagoras.  I think that materialism is absurd but I see no reason why any philosopher or scientist is guilty of a boundary violation by believing in it and arguing for it.  I am sure that Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett think that science is the best way of making sense of the world and I know that neither thinks it the only way of doing so.  However, if either did believe that, they would only be pushing an extreme position on a certain spectrum of questioning.  The history of philosophy is full of such arguments.  The proper response is to respond to the arguments by arguing in turn; it is childish to demand that the scientists get their muddy boots out of the parlor. 
Rather than continue to argue in the abstract, let me offer an example.  Most people of faith in these United States seem to be thorough going dualists.  They believe that the soul is a second, vaporous body somehow attached to the physical body.  That vaporous body is the home of our thoughts, passions, and moral responsibility. 
At death (and perhaps occasionally before that event) the soul detaches itself and floats away.  I am fond of pointing out that this view is not Biblical.  I think that it is opposed by the view presented in the wee books at the end of the New Testament.  I also point out that it is not the view of any major church that I know of.  The Christian churches have always insisted on the resurrection of the body. 
Does science have anything to say about this?  I have argued in these pages that it does.  The famous split brain experiments have shown that when the corpus callosum is severed (as it is in a radical therapy for extreme seizures), the two halves of the brain can no longer communicate with one another.  Something observed solely by the left eye and transmitted to the right hemisphere of the brain cannot be named; for naming is the province of the left hemisphere.  This is odd from the perspective of Cartesian dualism.  If there is a unified soul somehow involved in two-way communication with the physical brain, why can’t it get information from one side to the other? 
That is a case where science, strictly confining itself to scientific questions, can speak to a very robust and centuries old philosophical/religious question.  That it comes down on the side of the New Testament is interesting.  It is precisely this sort of thing that seems to bother the critics of “scientism”.  If this is a boundary violation, I plead guilty. 


  1. First, thank you for your reply.

    Next, Locke and Company:
    I cautiously disagree. By the 1780s, you have Thomas Jefferson referring to the “physical and moral sciences”, indicating that there was some distinction between the two, though I’ll admit that many were involved in both.
    I have not seen much indication in Locke’s writings that he was, but since you certainly know Locke better than I do, you may be able to point to some examples. I suppose he must have had some dealings in the physical sciences, because he was a physician, but the theories he is known for, at least in my view, have very little to do with physical science and much more to do with moral science and philosophy. Therefore, I think it is fair for Wieseltier to object to the scientific community’s usurpation of thinkers like Locke.
    I think I may disagree with you concerning the similarity in the world view of Locke and members of the modern scientific community as well, but I’m not sure what similarities you are referring to.
    Regarding Science vs. Scientism: Pruett’s division makes sense to me too – and I do think that Wiesltier’s real problem is with Scientism rather than science, even if he says that it is with science. I also think his argument is less that scientists should “get their muddy boots out of the parlor” and more that they should not use their muddy boots to stamp out other disciplines or their voracious appetites to absorb them.
    Your example is different. You confine yourself to “the scientific questions” of religion and leave room for other perspectives and answers. Some would not be so careful.

  2. Miranda: thank you for your comments. I always enjoy them and profit from them.

    The distinction between physical and moral sciences goes all the way back to Aristotle, who noted that the latter does not allow the same degree of precision as the former; nonetheless, they are both sciences, as Jefferson, I think, would agree. One cannot speak of the laws of nature and of nature's God without a concept of nature and that itself is the root of all science and philosophy.

    Locke was not a scientist but he was about as thorough an empiricist as one can be. All genuine knowledge comes either from sensory data or from our reflection on our own thoughts. Empiricism is the basic epistemological strategy of modern science. His theories of the mind and of perception clearly involve the physical sciences as they were advancing in his time. I know of nowhere that Locke indicates any need for a boundary between the physical and the moral sciences, let alone a boundary between philosophy and science.

    I think you read W. rightly when you say that his complaint about scientizers is that they "should not use their muddy boots to stamp out other disciplines or their voracious appetites to absorb them." I just don't have any idea who these scientizers are. Who, among the partisans of science, wants to stamp out other disciplines?

    It is true that some science-minded thinkers do regard some intellectual or cultural traditions as basically fraudulent and embarrassing. I am among them. I think that New Age mysticism and "Creation Science" are largely, if not entirely, numbskull enterprises. I think that the latter, in particular, fails embarrassingly both as science and as Biblical interpretation. On the other hand, I think that Intelligent Design theory is intellectually and scientifically serious even if it ultimately fails as science. I also think that the tradition of Christian and Judaic theology is entirely serious.

    Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think that all religion and especially Biblical religion are basically buffoonery. I disagree; but the problem with their views is not that they are scientizing or that they have refused to recognize that the boundaries between disciplines are "final" as Wieseltier puts it. It is just that they judge wrongly in the case of religion and put the boundary between what is intellectually serious and what is not in the wrong place. Such controversies are what the history of philosophy is all about.