A Pound of Music

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Religion, Science

How do you solve a problem like Stephen Pinker?

Ross Douthat notes the curious convergence: that “the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods,” which were, according to Pinker, “explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable,” lead inexorably to the economoral worldview to which Pinker has–surely a coincidence–already subscribed. Fuck Theory, meanwhile, notices that Pinker seems unfamiliar with the philosophers he name drops to open his essay. (By the way, Pinker also mangles Bergson’s élan vital, elsewhere and otherwise in the essay, if only in passing.) FT might be too kind. He damns our scientician for having failed to read the primary sources, but the real knock is that Pinker could have avoided a lot of these basic errors just by reading Will Durant. He could have read Wikipedia! Is there anything as unforgivably lazy in this great age of the internet as a man incapable of feigning authority over a couple thousand words?

Look, I’m a materialist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m an atheist. I believe that the mind is an emergent phenomena of the brain. You might say that I constitute the natural constituency for Pinker’s argument, which is what makes its obtuseness and inadequacy so annoying. It gets everything backward. He says, for example, that science wipes away “the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces [and] undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.” No word on what testable hypotheses prohibit second degree murder or which codicil of evolutionary psychology demands that we not remove the mattress tags, but let’s allow the point. It is true, after all, that the sorts of bureaucratic rationalization that led to more modern systems of trial and punishment are kissin’ cousins with Pinker’s over-broadly defined science. Nevertheless, we end up in a bizarre territory wherein morality is defined by utility but the “science” behind it is a transcendent ideology:

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

The implication of this complaint, and the essential thesis of the article, is that science, whatever that is, uniquely among all human disciplines and endeavors, is not subject to utilitarian analysis, is not merely a mathematical function, a delta of positive change to “human flourishing.”

In fact, I agree. I think it would be a shame to look at the advancement of scientific knowledge, the immense growth of our species’ physical insight into the world and the universe, as a merely additive process whose sole measure is the number of new patents, cures, and minutes of extended battery life. Yes, there will surely be some practical outcome of learning that dolphins give each other names, but there is something essentially miraculous in simply knowing it to be true. And this is why I find Pinker’s claim so utterly bizarre, as if science must stake out a monopoly on the extraordinary, all our other transcendent experiences subsumed to its totalitarian scope. Pardon me, but isn’t that just weird? Religion claims to give life meaning, but by proving the Biblical creation myth false, science, gives life meaning. Replacing one false, totalizing claim with another is an odd way to run a debate team, if you know what I’m saying.

But then, this is where Pinker really wanders down a dusty path:

Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.

Slow down there, Percy Bysshe! Okay, I agree that pictures of the Earth from its own satellite are pretty fucking lovely, but what is, and from whence comes, sublime beauty? What does it mean to “mean” to be human? When you say, “our place in nature,” I presume you mean something more than our position on the food chain and our direct impact on global climatic systems. Cognitive neuroscience may lay claim to the question of how and why our particular subset of upright mammals perceives beauty as it does, but clearly we’re talking about something more than a reducible pleasure response to a Fibonacci-derived golden ration. Why do we find the Hubble deep field beautiful? Why, actually, do we artificially color it to make it beautiful? And what is “beautiful”?

These are lines of inquiry that real scientists (as opposed to commercial popularizers) and scholars of the humanities and artists and authors think about with much greater depth and subtlety than you’d suspect reading this crackpot essay, which prefers to lob vague accusations of disastrous postmodernism at the humanities as if it were an essay in Commentary in 1985. I mean, if Pinker reveals himself as something less than a scholar of philosophy at the beginning, he shows himself as an even worse art critic later on. Cheering for a new, scientific art like a bizarro Soviet, he actually says:

The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes.

This is the rough equivalent of James Turrell demanding that chemists to avail themselves of the unknown discipline of gas chromatography. Yo, Pinky, it’s Robert Smithson calling from 1970. He’d like to sell you a large, earthwork time machine. Artists have long embraced science and technology in their work and their practice. Has Pinker ever heard of Steve Kurtz? Does he know about collectives like Informationlab? Is he aware that the Oberlin Conservatory established the Technology in Music and Related Arts program in 1967? Does he read science fiction? Shit, I mean, has he heard of a little-known avant-garde filmmaker named James Cameron? Physician, heal thyself.

11 thoughts on “A Pound of Music

  1. My favorite part about these flag-planting exercises is the omnipresent assumption that science is a ‘thing’ that we might feed to a lion or wear as a hat. Fear not thy science! for it is thine saviour! Without it we are lost and sick and without refrigeration on an airplane!

    Science is a commitment to the method of analysis most likely to produce an assessment of reality as the majority of humans experience and understand it. Or something like that. It doesn’t have tangible borders, and it can’t invade or be repelled by the humanities any more than you can store it in the cupboard. Which I suppose is a long way of saying – as noted – that the only thing these jeremiads seem to prove is the reverse: these people desperately need to read some shit that doesn’t contain the words ‘independent variable.’

    And who is ghostwriting Douthat’s blog?

    1. Douthat’s blog has been surprisingly perspicacious of late. Do you suppose that he, uniquely among columnists, is benefiting from holding a sinecure–has it liberated him somehow? Also, drop me an email, mang. Let’s catch up.

  2. They’re both swinging pretty wildly here. Fact is, we have no reason to think that morality IS anything but an aesthetic preference, even though neither of them wants it to be. But what’s the problem? That it’s harder to achieve “moral consensus” when you can’t convince people of the objective truth of your vision of Catholicism or Star Trek-ism? Fine with me — when I hear “moral consensus”, I don’t think of Wilberforce or Assisi or Mill (none of whom could possibly be described as moral conformists); I think of Communism, or the Inquisition. Fuck moral consensus!

  3. Whether you attach deities to your metaphysics or not, the hard problem remains just as intractable. Why, where and how does the leap from a sack of mostly bacteria, water and differentiated tissues to the emergent phenomena take place? An iteratively evolved ability to respond to stimulus becomes attention and memory…

    I think one of the great bits about science (and I mean physics now mainly) is that if any of its conclusions came from a belief system categorized as religion, it would be like the craziest, freakiest religion out there. Non-locality is of a kind with the every grain of sand presence stuff.

  4. Pinker and his ilk are fighting a rear-guard action:

    “The point that needs to be grasped here is that the institutional structure of science in America and other industrial nations—the archipelago of university departments, institutes, and specialized facilities for research that provide the economic and practical framework for science as it’s practiced today—faces massive challenges as we move forward into the deindustrial world. On the one hand, the raw fiscal burden of supporting that structure in an age of economic contraction and environmental payback will become increasingly difficult for any nation to meet, and especially challenging for the United States, as it descends from its age of imperial extravagance into a far more tightly constrained future. On the other, the emotional commitment of scientists to the civil religion of progress, and to an understanding of the purpose and goals of science that only makes sense in the context of that religion, places harsh burdens on any attempt to preserve that structure once popular faith in progress dissolves.”


  5. I will grant some of the Philos Pinker cites such as Descartes are important in re: the history of science, and certain particular philosophies could be regarded as proto-sciences, perhaps. And in the early days, when specialist knowledge was minimal, it was possible for philosophers to effectively critique scientists; e.g., IMO Hegel made some good (in the context of the time) points re: the interpretation of Newtonian mechanics.

    Apart from Pinker’s ignorance about what the texts in question said is the general problem: his (any many others’) premise that these historic philosophies are relevant to modern questions. I mean, while Aristotle’s commitment to empirical evidence may have been exceptional at the time he couldn’t even be bothered to count the number of teeth men and women actually had.

    Nowadays the only philosophy that is any good to science is philosophy scientists themselves generate, M-theory and what have you. To say the academics are imperious to science is weird–they’re are obsessed with it, unfortunately–like Pinker, most of the time have no idea what science actually is.

  6. This is the same Anglos-Saxon eructation against postmodernism that’s been reverberating since the eighties. Curious maybe to a point of view concerned with that kind of ritual (the kind of point of view found in the humanities perhaps), but tiring and predictable to the rest of us.

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