Sunday, February 25, 2018

Pinker And Douthat: Enlightenment Now: Science Versus The Irrational


I just read the linked-to-above piece by Ross Douthat on Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now. 

I disagree with everything Douthat says.

His argument is that Pinker’s liberal, scientific, data driven optimism is smug in its dismissal of the irrational and the virtues of the irrational, of how those virtues are evident in an intensely curious drive, akin to science, which can give us answers, based on the “evidence” of the self, to our deepest personal perplexities, answers for which science and secular liberalism offer no help.

His argument concludes with noting Pinker’s lament for the loss of appreciation of science, for, by necessary implication, our deeper dive into the irrational, and with suggesting that his smug, dismissive “secular certainties” may be among the causes of that loss since these certainties, as Douthat has it, tend to smother the questing curious spirit common to the quest after the irrational and to science.

...Which is why if Pinker and others are genuinely worried about a waning appreciation of the inquiring scientific spirit, they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem — that they might, indeed, be stifling the more comprehensive kind of curiosity upon which the scientific enterprise ultimately depends...

There is so much I think wrong with Douthat’s argument that I scarcely know where to begin. 

His first mistake is to mischaracterize Pinker’s position as one of smug liberal certainty, as though he were a naif in his faith in inevitable human progress including North American social progress. But Pinker’s not that. 

Pinker cites evidence for his theses of demonstrable progress, the engine for which is the combination of enlightenment values best encapsulated by the scientific method. (And nothing will do but to refute his evidence, a refutation  Douthat says is beside the point in his piece-Pinker’s “bright line” between science and “obscurantist” non science.) 

Pinker is far from smug. He knows our progress is fragile, reversible, fraught with dangers threatening massive human destruction. He knows that science is trial and error and, so, full with errors. And, so, we move forward but in a highly contingent and zig zagging way. 

Douthat’s second mistake is to vaunt the virtues of the irrational-astrology, fad diets, faith healing, ecstatic prayer, all kinds of new ageism-as manifesting an independence of spirit that makes those who pursue them jmore independent minded than secular liberals who incline “to meekly submit to authority.” Because the divers into the irrational, an existential quest to be sure, rely on the “evidence” of the self, they quest after personal truth the way scientists do after phenomenal truth. And those who dismiss (say) prayer as illusory without actually seeing whether it works are anything but empiricists: 

....If you refuse any non-F.D.A.-blessed treatment for chronic illness because there’s no controlled study proving that it works, or have a religious experience and pre-emptively dismiss it as an illusion without seeing what happens if you pray, you may be many things, but you are not really much of an empiricist....

That the secular liberal are meeker than (say) astrologists is a presumption so absurd that I wouldn’t have expected it of Douthat. Those who in their distress turn to the irrational for answers offer no model for admirable living. Irrational responses to heightened despair aren’t admirable curiosity; nor do the off side routes and processes to answers beyond evidence have anything to do with science, literally or metaphorically. The “evidence” the self provides is wavering, irreplicable and unfalsifiable subjectivity. In using the imagery of science to celebrate glossolaliasts and macrobioticists, Douthat conflates the literal and the metaphoric. And if he’s not, then he’s stretching  the metaphor of science past snapping in trying to attach it to the obviously unscientific.  

Consider finally his last paragraph quoted a few paragraphs above. If Pinker and his ilk contribute to a decline in the appreciation of the scientific spirit by way of their smug “secular certainties,” if they are helping squelch the comprehensive kind of curiosity science depends on, and if science and the intense pursuit of the irrational have that curiosity in common, then why is the appreciation of science declining while the pursuit of the irrational grows, that growth the obvious corollary of that decline? If Pinker and fellow secular liberals stifle that common curiosity, then how can chasing after the irrational be growing? 

I want to say that the incoherence of Douthat’s last paragraph is of a piece with the confusion, conflation and category error that mark his piece.

1 comment:

  1. Ross Douthat, a hater of contraception and science itself, wants to bring back the Middle Ages.