Angel of Science

Over at The New Republic, Steven Pinker has posted a powerful essay on science and its proper relationship to the humanities. The essay really resonates because my first round of graduate study was in the humanities and the second has been in the sciences. The happy result has been that I see no divide between sciences and humanities. Genealogy of Religion is an extended exercise in favor of this consilient fact. It’s hard for me to imagine analyzing any issue using just one method or the other. The sciences and humanities are tools which work nicely in isolation but brilliantly in combination. I’ve never understood practitioners of one who feel a narrow-minded need to diss practitioners of the other. But in my experience, it’s usually the humanists doing the defensive dissing, for (personal or political) reasons that don’t interest me.

Having said all this, Pinker has some poignant things to say about science and religion. It’s a big essay and I encourage you to read the whole, but for those who can’t, here’s a taste:

In which ways, then, does science illuminate human affairs? Let me start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives. This is the traditional territory of religion, and its defenders tend to be the most excitable critics of scientism. They are apt to endorse the partition plan proposed by Stephen Jay Gould in his worst book, Rocks of Ages, according to which the proper concerns of science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria.” Science gets the empirical universe; religion gets the questions of moral meaning and value.

Unfortunately, this entente unravels as soon as you begin to examine it. The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.

While Pinker’s essay contains a theological whiff of progressive-humanism (of the sort that so incenses John Gray), I do think it’s wise to begin any inquiry by “hemming in the possibilities.”


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4 thoughts on “Angel of Science

  1. Joe Miller

    This sentence doesn’t just have a whiff of progressive humanism, it reeks of it: “We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, *government* [emphasis mine], and writing late in its history”.

    The conflation of the process of governance with the operations of the state is one of the chief failings of the teleological conception of history. Foragers the world over practice self-governance today, and there’s no reason to assume that they didn’t in the past.

  2. Darryl

    A little progressivism? Jeez, if it was any more triumphant there would be a John Philip Souza march playing in the background. The funny thing is he thinks he’s being objective.

  3. Cris Post author

    Pinker is a triumphal progressivist, no doubt, and that aspect of his work is quite irritating. It was on full display in Better Angels of Our Nature, the “facts” supporting which have been demonstrated false by Brian Ferguson and others. I wrote about this toward the end of this post.

    When Better Angels first appeared, I also critiqued his assumption that when numbers of deaths reach a certain frequency and magnitude, absolute numbers tell us something important and looking only at percentages of populations doesn’t seem or feel right.

    So I’ll agree with Joe that the article has more than a whiff of progressivism; at times, it absolutely reeks. But his larger point, or the one that interested me, was that science and humanities are not at odds or in conflict, and that science should establish some baselines for our inquiries. I think this is a good message.

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