Friday, August 09, 2013

Pinker Fails to Pull the Rabbit of 'Ought" Out of the Hat of 'Is"

Building in Istanbul

"Scientism" is the belief that reality is only material and can be fully explained and understood, in principle, by using the scientific method. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is scientistic. I've read a couple of Pinker's books (including The Blank Slate). Pinker wrote an essay for Time magazine on human consciousness (the hard problem of first person subjective consciousness). I had students in my Western philosophy class read it, and then dissected and taught Pinker's scientism to them out of this piece.

Nytimes writer Ross Douthat takes on Pinker's worldview in "The Scientism of Steven Pinker." I like Douthat's writing and thinking, especially his book Bad Religion. Here are some of Douthat's thoughts on Pinker's scientism.

  • Pinker doesn't think he's scientistic. Douthat refers to Pinker's disclaiming essay in The New Republic.
  • Douthat: scientism "wraps “is” in the mantle of “ought” and vice versa, and reduces culture to biology at every opportunity." On scientism supposedly one can derive "ought" from "is."
  • If Pinker is correct and "if our universe’s testable laws and empirical realities have no experimentally-verifiable connection to human ends and values, then one would expect rival ideas of the good to have difficulty engaging with one another fruitfully, escaping from the pull of relativism or nihilism, and/or grounding their appeals in anything stronger than aesthetic preference." (I'm with Douthat here. That's what atheism as philosophical materialism leaves us with.)
  • Uh-oh...  Pinker then pulls a kind of "Sam Harris" and wanders in the direction of saying that science can provide us with a moral ontology.
  • Douthat responds to this sneaky move: "This is an impressively swift march from allowing, grudgingly, that scientific discoveries do not “dictate” values to asserting that they “militate” very strongly in favor of … why, of Steven Pinker’s very own moral worldview! You see, because we do not try witches, we must be utilitarians! Because we know the universe has no purpose, we must imbue it with the purposes of a (non-species-ist) liberal cosmopolitanism! Because of science, we know that modern civilization has no dialectic or destiny … so we must pursue its “unfulfilled promises” and accept its “moral imperatives” instead!" [In other words, Pinker cannot escape the impossible dilemma of affirming scientistic reductionism on the one hand and making moral claims on the other.]
  • Philosophically, writes Douthat, Pinker favors Mill (utilitarianism) over Nietzsche (the absence of any moral ontology).
I'm with Nietzsche here. In spite of what Pinker writes he fails, as does Harris, to pull the rabbit of "ought" out of the hat of "is."