Printer friendly version

December 4, 2005

John Derbyshire: Scientismist

Evidence for the conclusion expressed in the above subject line appears even in a minor bit of rhetorical cheating. In the piece that set off this latest science versus various disciplines skirmish, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

This is what they now inadvertently remind us: that there are, after all, other modes of knowledge, other scholarly disciplines--philosophy, history, literature, theology--that have taught us a good deal, over the ages, about human nature, social behavior, ethical principles and practices. [Emphasis added]

Beginning with a quotation that cuts Himmelfarb off after "human nature," Derbyshire's lengthy response winds its way to the conclusion that:

... you can't build bridges or design drugs by thinking like that [i.e., that all abstract thought is really religion], and you can't enlarge your understanding of the natural world, either--no matter how many philosophers, theologians, novelists, and historians you hire.

The topic's transition from "human nature" (among other social considerations) to "the natural world" can only appear seamless to a writer for whom all we really need to know about human nature we can learn in biology class. If human nature has a spiritual side, however, then it would certainly be plausible to believe that knowledge can be developed by and transferred through means that have nothing to do with science or its method. To imply otherwise — to suggest that "understanding the natural world" will complete one's understanding human nature — is an expression of humanism. (One wonders whether Derbyshire makes it as a scientist or a theologian.)

Extend this same sort of consideration to a somewhat striking Derbyshire passage:

If impartial scientific inquiry turns up results -- reproducible results with real predictive power (if you do this, then this will happen; if this is the current state of affairs, then either this or this will be the future state after time t, with probabilities p and q) -- if, I say, inquiry turns up these results, and the results are emotionally displeasing to us, or to loud, powerful factions among us, should we stop the research? How exactly WOULD we stop it world-wide -- in China, for instance, or India?

The implied answer to Derbyshire's first question is, obviously, "no," and the fact that he does not deem qualifying clauses to be necessary introduces into the discussion the mechanical reductivism that has led many a wary eye to glance toward science more regularly. At the very least, one might hope for the concession that a substantial negative emotional response to scientists' activities is not totally lacking in import. Even a Darwinist might hypothesize that the chemical reaction of displeasure is rooted in some bit of humanity's historical experience.

But, says the adherent to scientism, science should not be impeded — CANNOT be impeded. (Who knows but that we may eventually develop a treatment for the chemically inspired impulse to do so.) Of course, scientismists would do well to understand that humanity does not simply "dwell in the natural world"; we affect it — increasingly. It may be little more than a faint call from the desert in the face of science's relentless logic, but if scientists truly have the sole capability of defining the boundaries of science, perhaps a few should investigate the likely consequences when we find ourselves stranded, having crossed too many bridges built without destinations.

Posted by Justin Katz at December 4, 2005 11:38 PM

In another paragraph in that same post, Derbyshire is skeptical about whether anything useful has ever come from theology or philosophy. I wonder how his scientists would run an experiment to prove that capitalism is superior to communism.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at December 5, 2005 5:30 PM

Jonah Goldberg makes my point more wittily here:

Posted by: Ben Bateman at December 5, 2005 5:37 PM

"having crossed too many bridges built without destinations."

This is precisely what was missing from most of that exchange in The Corner - what is the goal? Why are we doing science in the first place? Why do we want to increase our understanding of nature (or human nature)? What do we do with that knowledge once we have it? Etc. Science can't answer these questions.

It's a lot like the Army Corps of Engineers: the purpose of a lot of their projects is to create money and jobs for the Corps of Engineers. There is no ulterior purpose, and in fact the results may be harmful. Science is becoming the same way: we should spend more money on science just for the sake of doing science, even if the consequences are harmful.

Posted by: Mike S. at December 6, 2005 11:05 AM

The missing element in every human 'solution' is
an accurate definition of the creature.

The way we define 'human' determines our view
of self, others, relationships, institutions, life, and
future. Important? Only the Creator who made us
in His own image is qualified to define us accurately.
Choose wisely...there are results.

Many problems in human experience are the result of
false and inaccurate definitions of humankind premised
in man-made religions and man-made humanistic philo-

Human is earth's Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by
nature and nature's God a creature of Choice - and of
Criteria. Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and definitive
characteristic is, and of Right ought to be, the natural
foundation of his environments, institutions, and re-
spectful relations to his fellow-man. Thus, he is orien-
ted to a Freedom whose roots are in the Order of the
universe. Selah


Posted by: James Fletcher Baxter at December 23, 2005 7:56 PM