The fallacies of scientific fundamentalism

15 Apr

From Philosopher John Crosby:

In a recent high-profile debate, Steven Pinker defended science against Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, who for his part ably defended the humanities against Pinker. Wieseltier says that Pinker’s position is “scientism,” to which Pinker responds that “scientism” is a “boo-word,” the meaning of which is more emotive than conceptual. But Wieseltier uses the term with all due precision: scientism takes the paradigm for knowledge and truth to be the knowledge and truth gained by the natural sciences. To the extent that philosophy or literature or religion is not amenable to the methods of natural science, it is treated as a sub-standard form of knowledge. In this straightforward sense of the word, Pinker clearly defends scientism.

Consider his remarks about religion. “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,” writes Pinker. He argues that to believe in a God who works in human affairs is to turn one’s back on science. Since divine providence cannot be known in the way in which electromagnetism is known, Pinker argues that it cannot be known at all; it can only be ignorantly asserted in the spirit of fundamentalism.

If Pinker had said that science does not reveal the working of divine providence, he would  have spoken with scientific precision. Or if he had said that certain conceptions of providence have become untenable in the light of modern science, he would have made a valid non-scientistic point. He might have said, for instance, that once we learn about the inner-worldly causes of thunder, we will not be so quick to discern divine anger in the thunder. And from here he might have gone on to warn believers not to be too quick to infer direct divine action in the world on the basis of gaps in our empirical knowledge; once those gaps are plugged by the advance of science, the divine action will seem to be discredited. But to say that the very idea of divine providence, along with other fundamental categories of religion, is discredited by the scientific world view—well, that is vintage scientism.

Pinker’s scientism is a kind of “scientific fundamentalism” or “fundamentalist science.” He is not so different from the Christian fundamentalist who tries to determine the age of the earth using the Bible alone. The Bible is a religious document and is not suited to settling questions of geology—just as natural science is not suited to settling the question of God’s existence and of His actions within the finite world. Pinker understands the limits of scientific knowledge no better than the fundamentalist understands the limits of biblical knowledge.

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