Wieseltier on Scientism

Leon Wieseltier offers a great sermon against scientism.

The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged. Science does come with a worldview, but there remains the question of whether it can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview. To have a worldview, Musil once remarked, you must have a view of the world. That is, of the whole of the world. But the reach of the scientific standpoint may not be as considerable or as comprehensive as some of its defenders maintain.

None of these strictures about the limitations of science, about its position in nonscientific or extra-scientific contexts, in any way impugns the integrity or the legitimacy or the necessity or the beauty of science. Science is a regular source of awe and betterment. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. Science is plainly owed this much support, this much reverence. This much—but no more. In recent years, however, this much has been too little for certain scientists and certain scientizers, or propagandists for science as a sufficient approach to the natural universe and the human universe. In a world increasingly organized around the dazzling new breakthroughs in science and technology, they feel oddly besieged.

Above all, let us note the strength and the verve of Wieseltier’s pen. There’s so much to say on these topics.

First, I think it needs to be said that science—as opposed to scientism—should be to be taught to and mastered by far more than scientists; in this, the humanists (and many others) have failed. (I should make clear that my notion of “science” here encompasses mathematics, probability, computer science, economic reasoning, etc.—all the Gamutian topics.) Saying this is not at all inconsistent with supporting Wieseltier’s thesis against scientism.

Second, Wieseltier’s admission that the humanities have gone wrong with their turn towards postmodernism and political correctness is true and worth repeating. (I did like his stab about how these unfortunate trends are supported by precisely this fetishization of the sexy and the new that scientists and deans share.1)

Finally, and most importantly, we need to remember that the greatest danger of scientism is not its encroachment upon the academic humanities–part of me wonders if there’s that much worth saving in the academy, whether we might just leave it to the literary journalists, who did it so much better anyways. Rather, the horror of scientism, its great and naive blindness, is in its complacent denial of the fundamental existential questions.

O, New Republic, you are a fickle beast—so good at times, which makes up for all those other times. Yes, the New Yorker might be reliable, clearly edited, fun—and it might even on occasion stray into really intellectual fare, especially when Louis Menand is writing. But this, this is the stuff that matters.

  1. An aside: I heard somewhere that mathematicians and physicists differ in the following sense: physicists tend to cluster towards hot new topics, following fads, while mathematicians tend to have the opposite tendency. I know very little about physics, but this seems a pretty fair characterization in math—a discipline which doesn’t seem as riven by existential doubt as physics (especially of the theoretical sort) is.