Steven Pinker vs Leon Wieseltier: Beyond the Polemic in Science vs Humanities

Let me tell a story. The 18th and 19th Century was a time of the flowering of the enlightenment and intellectual achievement. But it was also a flowering of the idealism that lie (even if dormant) in the work of philosophers like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Idealism was an impediment to the rising desire to exert scientific control in social areas such as management and education. By the 20th Century, people like George Edward Moore (1873–1958), Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970) tired of what they viewed as rampant intellectual muddle-headedness and struck out as empirical positivists to move beyond this state of affairs. As noted by Guyer and Horstmann, Moore and Russell’s critique was so devastating that it is not possible to serious entertain an idealist position in the English speaking world today. And that is inspite of the fact that their banishment of idealism largely was unsuccessful.

In a very similar fashion Zat Rana recently cautioned us sgainst thinking too deeply in a post that echos the idealist concerns of Moore and Russell.

The trap that most of us fall into is one in which we impose too much of the invisible world onto the real, tangible world. The result of this is that we add needless context and depth that detracts from the clarity provided by the senses we use to paint the part of reality in which we commonly live.(Emphasis added)

But relying exclusively on our senses has a subtle way of re-introducing idealism back into the equation, but an idealism that can easily be ignored. Science and data are our best tools, but they always operate as a form of simplification and must be situated in a larger intellectual field to find its natural validity. WVO Quine famously critiqued this form of reductionism:

The dogma of reductionism survives in the supposition that each statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, can admit of confirmation or infirmation at all. My countersuggestion, . . . statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body. . . . (T)otal science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. . . . Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections — the logical laws being in turn simply certain further statements of the system, . . . But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience . . . Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic. Quine’s Two Dogma of Empiricism

In fact, we might suggest in closing, the main alternative to what is essentially the epistemological idealism of a great deal of twentieth-century philosophy has not been any straightforward form of realism, but rather what might be called the “life philosophy” . . . the lived experience of “being-in-the-world”, from which both the “subjective” such as sense-data and the “objective” such as objects theorized by science are abstractions or constructions made for specific purposes. Guyer and Horstmann

What these authors address is more than reductionism but also an impulse for an anti-metaphysical approach and, as noted by CS Peirce, show me someone who claims to be beyond metaphysics, to rely simply on sense data, and I’ll show you someone whose thoughts are overflowing with metaphysical assumptions.

But we are left with the question, how do we respond to a confusing world in spite of Zat’s concerns, which are legitimate? That, I believe is the role of education; providing people with broad tools of thinking. To be able to use analytic frameworks and understand their historical development in both the sciences and the humanities and how to combine these frameworks in practices that reflect good thinking.

This brings me back to Pinker and Wieseltier. When an educated person brings good thinking to a problem, there is no bright line that separates the humanities from the sciences. To say otherwise is to return to the failed approach of the early 20th Century empiricists. The holistic approach is the essence of the whole life philosophy of pragmatism. Metaphysics, the laying out of the assumptions behind an analysis, requires both humanistic and scientific frameworks. I mostly must disagree with Pinker, not because I don’t favor science to understand the world, but because Pinker’s position implies an underlying reductionism, a devaluing of the metaphysical. In the same way that 20th Century empiricism failed to rid themselves of idealism, Pinker is not advocating for being scientific, but simply being under-educated and unthoughtful in how he analyses these science / humanity wars. In short, science needs more than methodological rigor, it also needs intellectual rigor.

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