Steven Pinker: Science Is Not the Enemy of the Humanities

In his New Republic article “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” Steven Pinker proposes to redeem the term “Scientism” from the critics of science by identifying “Scientism” with these two ideas: 

  1. The world is intelligible.
  2. The acquisition of knowledge is hard.

I take inspiration from Steven Pinker’s challenge to us to follow in the footsteps of Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Lock, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith, but now with scientific evidence in hand that they were deprived of by their location in history:

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. 

Here are some of Steven Pinker’s recommendations for how science can strengthen the humanities:

… Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

Similar opportunities are there for the exploring. 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. Music scholars have much to discuss with the scientists who study the perception of speech and the brain’s analysis of the auditory world.

As for literary scholarship, where to begin? John Dryden wrote that a work of fiction is “a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot….

And in political science, Steven Pinker argues that data analysis has provided reasonably persuasive evidence (“on average, and all things being equal”) for the following questions:

  • Do democracies fight each other? [no]
  • What about trading partners? [no]
  • Do neighboring ethnic groups inevitably play out ancient hatreds in bloody conflict? [no]
  • Do peacekeeping forces really keep the peace? [yes]
  • Do terrorist organizations get what they want? [no]
  • How about Gandhian nonviolent movements? [yes]
  • Are post-conflict reconciliation rituals effective at preventing the renewal of conflict? [yes]