The limits of Scientism: John Gray on Jonathan Haidt

April 27, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

I just read a fascinating review of Jonathan Haidt’s acclaimed new book: The Righteous Mind, which he spoke about recently at the RSA.

John Gray was the author, and it featured in The New Republic magazine.

The review felt quite balanced- he praises Haidt for his sophisticated attack on naive forms of rationalism, but he also highlights what he views as the limitations of Haidt’s argument, particularly for failing to grasp the important ways in which utilitarianism and pluralism are at odds.

Some highlights:

“…The literature of scientism has three defining features, which help explain its enduring popularity as well as its recurrent failures: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable.”

“…This illustrates a fundamental problem with scientism. A shift of meaning occurs when “morality” is used as a theoretical category in a putative scientific discipline. In everyday parlance, “morality” is a term heavily freighted with value: to call something moral is to distinguish it from things that are immoral or amoral, or to which moral judgments simply do not apply. When “morality” features as a theoretical category, this prescriptive element falls away. When “morality” becomes a term of art in a supposedly scientific discipline, there is no longer any difference between good and bad moralities.”

“…Scientism has been shown to be an illusion time and time again. But it is another illusion to imagine that scientism will go away. Looking to science for deliverance from the tragicomedy of history is part of what it means to be modern. The tracts that come and go in airport bookstores, promising solutions to problems that have baffled the greatest minds, are symptoms of a confusion that is incurable. We may expect many more books that offer to extricate us from conflict by sprinkling the magic dust of science on our disorders.”

Comments

  • MatthewMezey

    Hi Jonathan,

    That sounds like a review I should definitely take a look at.

    As you know, my own long discussion of Jonathan’s new book is here: http://bit.ly/haidtreview

    Despite the length, these are very much my quick thoughts – I have a lot more mulling over still to do ;-)

    (I somehow feel I should point out that it was all written outside work time too…)

    Matthew Mezey