Thursday 15 August 2013

The perils of scientific morality and counting too much

I have been brought up for most of my conscious life with a vague knowledge of C. P. Snow's controversial 1959 lecture 'The Two Cultures'.

It was this which inspired the staggering rejoinder from the literary critic F. R Leavis, who attacked Snow bitterly without actually reading what he said.  "To read it would be to condone it," he said.

Even so, I am probably more on Leavis' side than Snow's.  Snow assumed that somehow the arts and the sciences were equal and opposite, when they are not.  Important as science is, there is always a danger that morality, art, significance and the study of unmeasurable life, will collapse into science and become a miserable shadow of themselves.

That isn't to say that measurement plays no role in the liberal arts.  Or to say that Snow was wrong that everyone needs some understanding of science.  But to compare the two is a bit like comparing Shakespeare with a vacuum cleaner.  You still need vacuum cleaners, of course, but still...

Now, thanks to the Canadian science writer Steven Pinker, the old debate is coming back to life again.  His article in the American magazine New Republic defends science against the accusations of a reductionist 'scientism'.

The UK's most imaginative critic of scientism, Bryan Appleyard, has written a fascinating response - acknowledging that Pinker is at least right that critics are sometimes confusing the way some scientists behave with the ideals of the scientific method.

Quite right. Scientific propositions need to be falsifiable. They must remain tentative. Even so, Pinker manages to condemn "fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers" - and he may be right, but it would be premature and unscientific to not rule out other creative forces yet to be understood.

I've read Pinker's article through a couple of times and there still seem to be two major weaknesses.

First, Pinker says this about morality:

"In combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today."

You hear this from scientists often in the UK too, that scientific discoveries provide a 'de facto' morality.  It can't be so, or - if it is - our morality is not founded on safe foundations.

What if our scientific knowledge changes?  What if we find, as Robert Ardrey used to say, that we are actually descended from a race of killer apes?  Does that change our basic morality?  It is true that morality must be based on some scientific facts - but it will always go beyond it and rest, partly, on a human tradition which is beyond science (there are dangers there too, of course).

Second, Pinker talks about the insights of science for archaeology, psychology and literary criticism - all of which is true, but there is a danger here as well.  There are forces in our world now which would like to subsume the liberal arts into something much narrower, digitisable and measurable - which will limit the breadth of the human mind to make it seem comprehensible (see Appleyard's important book The Brain is Wider Than the Sky).

Although I'm sure Pinker would not fall for this himself, there are those out there in the grip of the strange obsession which gripped the eighteenth century Jedediah Buxton (see picture above).  On his first trip to the theatre to see a performance of Richard III, he was asked whether he'd enjoyed it, and all he could say was that there were 5,202 steps during the dances and 12,445 words spoken by the actors. Nothing about what the words said, about the winter of our discontent made glorious summer; nothing about the evil hunchback king.

The story is funny now as then, but it is also faintly disturbing. Buxton is in some ways a fearsome symbol of the modern age, in which we count everything but see the significance of nothing.

More about Buxton in my book The Tyranny of Numbers.  But why is the critique of this kind of scientism alive and well in the USA (see this for example) and yet relies on Bryan Appleyard and hardly anyone else over here?  Or am I wrong?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another excellent piece - thanks David.

Although I've got huge respect for Pinker, he's off the mark on ethics, probably because he's mainly interacting with people who broadly share his worldview. How would he persuade an Inca who wanted to sacrifice virgins at dawn, and could show a correlation between their practice and the sunrise which it repeatedly 'caused'? Or a racist who took just a slightly smaller definition of 'sentient beings' (ie ones of the same colour as themselves)?

For ethics to make sense, we have to believe that the moral qualities of something (eg a murder) rest in the thing itself, not in ourselves. Explaining away the view 'murder is wrong' as an arbitrary upshot of evolution misses the point.

It's easy for Pinker to pick on the peddlers of hokum; but he seems to be merely redepositing his faith in Men in White Coats.

(From Iain King)