The Persistence of Scientism: A Response to the Winegards

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“The most dangerous state in the growth of civilization may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the power of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilization built upon them.”

–Friedrich Hayek

It was the wisdom of America’s Founding Fathers, in recognition of the religious conflicts that had plagued Europe for centuries, not to allow the new nation to have an official, state-enforced religion. Yet as they also knew, a nation and its laws are only as good as the moral agents themselves. So the Founders encouraged the practice of Christianity, a vital source of moral conditioning and value, even as they didn’t legally require or enforce it. For you cannot have a good society unless citizens, in their autonomy, choose to obey the law and to be good neighbors (whatever one might mean by good). Nor can a nation last, let alone flourish, if its citizens live too much unlike one another. “Pluralism” enabled by “tolerance” sounds wonderful in theory, but outside the seminar or the learned journal, in the messy and unpredictable affairs of life, it easily makes for profound confusion, for a war of incompatible values and manipulation without relent.

What endures in human life is struggle, and in the year 2019 of our democratic experiment, the struggle is this: How to obtain moral cohesion, how to live well together when liberalism, being negative in character, is terribly conducive to all sorts of moral incoherence and question-begging. Alas, the very virtue of liberalism—namely, its freedom from religion or other positive, enforceable normative content—has proven over time to be a vice. How shall we deal with this dilemma?

For some, the solution is scientism. As I wrote in “The Intellectual Dark Web’s Unwise Center,” my July 10, 2018 essay for Jacobite Magazine:

“As traditions wane . . . mankind becomes desperate for a new faith, for something that can mitigate their fear and anxiety about the uncertainty of events, while helping them to believe that things are better than they are and can become better still. It is telling that nobody is less skeptical of reason than classical liberals. We also find that unlike profound unbelievers from the past—Hume, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Santayana—these rationalists are generally optimistic about human affairs. In practice, this often amounts to a weird dogmatism that is no more sophisticated than that of the believers to whom they condescend.”

“In Defense of Scientism,” an essay published on April 6 at Quillette, seems to me an example of the persistence of scientism—more specifically, of why it persists. The authors, Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard, are classical liberals and social scientists at American universities, and they want science to do much more than it possibly can. They are very like the Confidence Man Steven Pinker, so one is not surprised that they have written a defense of his tedious Panglossianism. The Winegards have made a case for science, not scientism, which they do nothing to justify. Nor do they recognize the danger of their faith, as it were.

That danger is palpable in their attempt to defend scientism against its critics, in the section “Scientism Cannot Determine Values and Therefore Is a Poor Guide to the Good Life”:

“Opponents of SBSP [science-based social policy] often argue that science is incapable of determining human values and is therefore a poor guide for social policy. Ross Douthat, a conservative writer at the New York Times, for example, has argued that ‘scientism’ is, at bottom, ‘an invocation of the ‘scientific facts’ to justify what is . . . a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche . . .’ This point was made more peremptorily by Jeffrey Guhin at Slate who flatly declared that ‘science has no business telling people how to live.’ In other words, science might be able to ascertain facts about the world—to discover laws and particles and explanatory principles—but it cannot discern values or meaning, and therefore cannot tell us much about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“This argument is a version of David Hume’s philosophical claim that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ Hume’s argument contends that nothing about the state of the world can determine how we ought to behave or what we ought to value. To take an extreme example, there is nothing objectively or intrinsically wrong with defending the torture of one’s neighbors for no reason. The ought in any moral pronouncement (‘one should not torture one’s neighbors’) is not exclusively determined by the state of the world, but instead requires something subjective—a preference, a desire, a value (such as a preference not to see people suffer needlessly). We agree with this argument, and we do not think that a defense of SBSP requires us to refute it.”

“The is/ought argument is almost exclusively scholastic, because in reality most people agree on an underlying value, and this helps us to bridge the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ As Sam Harris has argued in The Moral Landscape, the underlying value most people agree upon is that some form of human flourishing or satisfaction or well-being or happiness is an intrinsic good and ought to be promoted. That is, most modern people in the West agree, despite sometimes showy protestations to the contrary, that human well-being ought to be the goal of social policy and morality . . . Once we have identified a desirable end—human flourishing—we can and should use science to discover and promote the policies that encourage it. Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live. This is not because science is infallible or because it is better than literature or religion, but because it is the best method we have for obtaining knowledge.”

Ironically, the Winegards have only confirmed the truth of Douthat’s description of scientism. Although science informs our conceptions of human nature, there is nothing “scientific” about what we do when we try to justify different ideas of “human flourishing.” Nor is the is-ought problem “almost exclusively scholastic,” least of all in our time, characterized as it is by so many competing ideas of good and evil and of right and wrong. More on all this shortly. First, since the Winegards make no mention of the matter, let us note the greatest limitations of science, something that is too rarely done in our scientistic era. In Edward Feser’s words:

“[T]hat science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; the assumption that this world is governed by the regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since the scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. To break out of this circle requires ‘getting outside’ of science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and, if scientism is to be justified, that only science does so. But then the very existence of that extra-scientific vantage point would falsify the claim that science alone gives us a rational means of investigating objective reality.”

In short, science is a powerful method, but without philosophy, it is nothing, like a 747 jet that cannot get off the ground. So it is, too, with “human flourishing.” It is trivial and question-begging to say that “most modern people in the West agree . . . that human well-being ought to be the goal of social policy and morality.” The grave problem is that in the West, as elsewhere in the world, there are various, incompatible ideas of “well being,” and to this important subject the Winegards, like the facile utilitarian Sam Harris, have contributed nothing. In his cogent review of The Moral Landscape, Thomas Nagel wrote:

“Harris is aware that there are extensive disputes about whether the single utilitarian premise is sufficient to account for the full complexity of morality, and he mentions examples such as whether the requirement to maximize everyone’s aggregate well-being is compatible with the permission to favor ourselves and our families, or with the prohibition against harming one innocent person to produce a greater benefit to others. But he passes over such problems, saying that these are difficult questions, that we have to take natural human motives into account, that there may be multiple equally valid norms of conduct any of which would serve human well-being equally well, and that the important thing is to contrast them with the many forms of life that would make people miserable. (That is what he means by the moral landscape.)”

“Since Harris skips over the hard substantive questions of right and wrong that occupy moral philosophers, the book is too crude to be of interest as a contribution to moral theory . . . These debates lie outside Harris’s interest, and competence.”

As with Harris, so with the Winegards. The is-ought problem is commonly misconceived and exaggerated. There is a case to be made that descriptive states of affairs (“is”) comprehend prescriptive ones (“ought”). But only in a context-specific sense—and one needs a lot more than talk about agreement on “flourishing” to deal with the problem of incompatible moral values in an increasingly diverse world. As the Winegards put it, “The ought in any moral pronouncement (‘one should not torture one’s neighbors’) is not exclusively determined by the state of the world, but instead requires something subjective—a preference, a desire, a value (such as a preference not to see people suffer needlessly).”

Such a “subjective” thing—which, to be sure, is not obviously merely subjective—is only coherent within the context of a particular tradition. And again, different peoples, with their different traditions, have different ideas about what it means to “flourish.” Such difference, in itself, does not entail “relativism,” but for our purposes, the crucial thing to know is that science provides no way of out of this impasse. A socialist can argue with a libertarian. A Christian can argue with a Muslim. A Kantian can argue with a Millian. In a relatively small number of cases, one will persuade another, but as the Winegards concede, with respect to moral value, there is nothing scientific about the element of justification in that process, which requires something external to science.

What is more, we should not assume, when it comes to normative argument in general, that science can do anything besides inform our argumentation. If I reason well, and use scientific data to persuade my interlocutor, my reasoning itself is not scientific but logical. Throughout their essay, the Winegards assume adroit inquiry and argument with a view to producing good social policy are eminently scientific by definition. It is not so. Such endeavors may or may not be scientific. Needless to say, the legal scholar Mark Pulliam’s interpretations of the Constitution are not any less valid or valuable for not being scientific, but rather contextual close readings that are comparable in method to those of a literary critic. According to the Winegards:

“Literary criticism . . .should be disciplined by the text it is analyzing. One should not be allowed to argue that Lolita is actually about the Cold War without providing evidence from the novel. On this basis, some interpretations are more plausible than others, and authorial intent, where discernible, can start to regain its authority. The critic should be skeptical and cautious about various readings, striving to falsify them with textual evidence.”

This is all true and well said, but the practice of responsible literary criticism—as in the readings of William Empson, Christopher Ricks, Marjorie Perloff, and others—is not altered a whit by tacking on the word science. Besides, why create unnecessary confusion, as if disciplined literary analysis were the same as what happens in physics and chemistry, those far more empirically constrained, far less normative domains? The Winegards seem motivated by conceit, and the impression is that they want science to stand at the top of the cultural hierarchy. Hence, they use the word science rather loosely, their underlying ambition obscuring the banality and poverty of their understanding.

Blithely underestimating the significance of what science cannot do, the Winegards declare that “science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.” That this is a path to tyranny is clear from the following passage:

“Opponents of scientism often argue that scientists have been wildly wrong in the past and have promoted dangerous, intolerant policies such as eugenics and white racial superiority. It therefore follows that they might be just as wrong today and promote policies that society will come to view as equally detestable . . .”

“[A]lthough eugenics, social Darwinism, and ‘scientific’ racism are often used to besmirch the reputation of science, they in fact illustrate why SBSP is so important. Social Darwinism, for example, wasn’t really a science, and it wasn’t based on the weight of the evidence; it was a social philosophy that incorporated a crude version of natural selection. Social Darwinists did not promote a judicious approach to policy determined by careful study of outcomes; they promoted a values-based approach to policy determined by a priori philosophical and moral assumptions. The same holds for eugenicists and ‘scientific’ racists. (The term ‘scientific racist’ is a rhetorical triumph for opponents of science, but really refers to someone who uses the patina of scientific nomenclature to justify bigotry, and not someone who uses the scientific method to defend racism.)”

Once again, the Winegards, who not only accept but argue for the reality of race, are obliviously ironic. IQ tests continue to demonstrate racial differences in mean intelligence, even though many people, in their anxious delusion, decry such tests as “racist.” “Careful study of outcomes” shows that racial differences in mean income also persist, nor are these differences altogether attributable to “discrimination,” “implicit bias,” or what you will. The very evolutionary psychology in which the Winegards are trained could be used to support eugenics. It would not be hard to argue, using the lower mean incomes and mean IQs of certain races (to say nothing of their relative lack of genius at the right side of the bell curve), that certain races should be eliminated, and others propagated or even cloned via genetic engineering, because doing all this would enhance fitness or survival value. It would not be hard to use science to support Nietzsche’s belief that “Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation . . . ” And from this it is but a step to what Nietzsche described as “the greatest of all tasks . . . the higher breeding of humanity, including the merciless extermination of everything degenerate and parasitical . . .”

And yet here, for most of us, moral considerations arise. The reason is that we tend not to think the value of human life is or should be determined by higher intelligence, higher income, or other forms of superior fitness. In doing so, of course, we are not appealing to science, but to religion or humanism or some other moral system, to fairly vague, non-scientific, quite disputable (epistemically speaking) concepts such as “human dignity” and “universal human rights.” In their essay on race, the Winegards assert that Racism isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals” [emphasis theirs]. The trouble here is that “basic human decency,” however taken for granted among liberals who all think alike, is not true a priori, but a nebulous, question-begging concept. Likewise, with “modern moral ideals.” And it is rather comic that, while they refer to religion as “superstition,” the Winegards affirm the truth of “basic human decency” and “modern moral ideals,” concepts that come from Christianity. (Unsurprisingly, they don’t mention science’s debt to religion, either.)

Science qua science is morally neutral. Therefore, if “a values-based approach to policy” were to be used to oppose eugenics, it could not be derived from science, which, if anything, is more likely to be put to the opposite aim. The Winegards, like me and probably you too, are against eugenics, so they would do better to keep science in its proper place. Surely it is naïve to call for it to be the summum bonum in devising social policy, while science itself contains no moral values that could be used to solve the many unforeseen moral problems that may result from the project. Will the scientific experts put on their canny sage hats and—pesto!—set things aright? Like most liberal academics, the Winegards appear to assume that, when it comes to moral controversies, all “reasonable people” can be relied upon to agree with them, as if mankind, or the West, were as homogenous as their psychology departments. By contrast, wise conservative thinkers—Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, Russell Kirk—have long stressed that human goods are precious, difficult to achieve but easily lost. Especially through vast, hubristic schemes of improvement. The Winegards evidence no awareness of such traditional prudence.

On the contrary, their faith in science is consistent with their crudeness concerning epistemic justification. Thus, they tell us that “[Richard] Dawkins, Pinker, and Harris are all profoundly philosophical thinkers.” Meanwhile, the Winegards are “impatient” with what they call “the logic-chopping, yawn-inducing, and obscurantist varieties” of philosophy. That is their right, but if they want science to “tell people how to live,” and if they want to be taken seriously, they will have to chop a lot more hairs than they have done in their “yawn-inducing” Quillette essay. They also will have to engage the arguments of actual philosophers, however much they admire their fellow, more prominent science idolaters.

Our arguments and debates about social policy must be rigorous, prudent, and skeptical. That means resisting the seduction of scientism, an overly ambitious folly to which many intellectuals are inclined. In general, human beings are bad at realizing what they don’t know, and intellectuals in particular are too confident in the power of their ideas and methods. Hence it happens, in an endlessly complex and uncertain world, that intellectuals do so much harm, even as they intend otherwise. The Winegards mean well, no doubt, but their thinking is nonetheless dangerous for that. It is only too easy to let consensus on liberal dogmas supplant the hard, frequently controversial work of justification. Such presumption can simplify problems, squash dissenting ideas, and at its worst, beget a vulgar homogenization, a massive ant heap of mediocrity and abject obedience. Today America and the West resemble a game whose rules have been lost or are perpetually made up on the fly. In our difficult condition many people will turn to false gods and easy answers. In discussions about how we should live, we should avail ourselves of the scientific method and scientific knowledge, but we should not conceive of science as a supreme authority. It is not that, and never can be.

Christopher DeGroot

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Christopher DeGroot is a columnist at Taki's Magazine. His writing has appeared in The American Spectator, The Daily Caller, American Thinker, Frontpage Magazine, New English Review, Jacobite Magazine, The Unz Review, and Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts. Follow him at @CEGrotius.