The limits of Scientism: John Gray on Jonathan Haidt

April 27, 2012 by · 1 Comment
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.”

Protecting Science from Scientism

January 31, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Some extracts I have recently enjoyed, about protecting science from scientism:

 

“That is the problem about turning secular materialist atheism into a political ideology, as Richard Dawkins and others have done. When you turn Skepticism into a political mass movement, the dogma is what gives the movement its coherence, like a marching band keeping soldiers in step. God forbid anyone who walks out of line. But is that how science has ever progressed? By an orderly march of believers? Isn’t it precisely the mavericks, those out of step with the dominant beat, who reveal new worlds to us?” -Jules Evans

 

“We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.”

-Mary Midgley

 

“Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” - C.S Lewis.

 

Perhaps it is not fair to ask more of science.  To borrow the words of Merleau-Ponty, the strength of science may lie precisely in the act that it gives up living among things, preferring to manipulate them instead- Francisco Varela

 

” (Subjectivity) is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” Marilyn Osborne

 

“There’s a certain kind of scepticism that can’t bear uncertainty.” - Rupert Sheldrake