Friday, August 16, 2013

Pinker on scientism

In an essay in the New Republic (Science is not the Enemy) Steven Pinker comments on the hostility and resentment with which many philosophers and humanities scholars greet those scientists - primarily neuroscientists - who have the gumption to think that science may have something to tell us about art, literature, truth and beauty.  Pinker is conciliatory; he values the humanities as much as anyone, and he sees no reason why we shouldn't welcome whatever science can add to our understanding in that realm as in any other (an interesting book on that topic is Edward Slingerland's  What Science Offers the Humanities) But this is a touchy subject, and a new set of pejoratives put these people in their place (scientism, neurobabble, neuromania, etc.)  A particularly egregious example of what Pinker is talking about is philosopher Colin McGinn’s deplorably arrogant review of Jean-Pierre Changeux’s book “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: A Neuronal Approach” in the New York York Review of Books July 12.

McGinn acknowledges Changeux’s “entirely platitudinous proposition that all mental activity has a neuronal basis of some sort or another” yet dismisses with cheerful condescension the possibility - entertained by “our enthusiastic brain scientist” - that neurons can tell us anything about our understanding of the good, the true and the beautiful. But how can McGinn, from his armchair, rule out that possibility? In the exchange  in the subsequent issue of NYRB (Aug.15) the genteel Changeux makes no secret of his shock at the arrogant tone of McGinn's review, but writes generously and sensibly: I see the relation between neuroscientists and philosophers in a much more positive and constructive manner, as a fruitful cooperation to understand, jointly, the “mind-brain” and to evaluate the consequences of the constantly progressing field of neuroscience. McGinn rejoins, “I have no objection to neuroscience as such: it is a fascinating and reputable scientific subject. My objection concerns the intellectual overreaching in which many of its practitioners engage—the tendency to assume that it can tell us much more than it really can.” But what scientist worth his/her salt does not engage in “intellectual overreaching” in the hope that science can tell us something we didn’t already know? The kind of self-restraint urged by McGinn would put an end to both science and philosophy.   

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