Science Is Not Your Enemy An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians | New Republic

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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. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

We don’t have to fantasize about this scenario, because we are living it. We have the works of the great thinkers and their heirs, and we have scientific knowledge they could not have dreamed of. This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.

One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in BookforumThe Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Nation, National Review OnlineThe New Atlantis, The New York Times, and Standpoint.

Written By: Steven Pinker
continue to source article at newrepublic.com

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  1. Excellent article!

    Are there any philosophers out there who can explain to me what a field like theology is doing at our universities?

    Why should we continue to listen to their arguments, when they never back it up with evidence?

  2. Re: “Scientism”
    I recall reading an account of an argument between Rutherford and a professor of Eng.Lit during which the latter accused Rutherford of being “uncultured”. Rutherford produced his reading list showing that he was better read than the English prof.

  3. Part of the problem is that scientists and technologists have historically overstated the significance of their work. Computer scientists, for example, regard as “art” any marks or objects they are able to create programmatically. Nascent fields like neuro-science and cognitive psychology make great claims for understanding human behavior, though they have barely scratched the surface. Movie theaters are awash in 3d computer-animated pablum that’s written formulaically, and produced with minimal human involvement.

    I think people in the humanities are not anti-science so much as trying to defend the turf that science pretends to have mastered, but has actually trivialized instead.

    • My observation has been that some don’t want scientist to make any comment whatsoever that may even be interpreted even remotely as bearing on their territoryIn reply to #4 by Tech Curmudgeon:

      Part of the problem is that scientists and technologists have historically overstated the significance of their work. Computer scientists, for example, regard as “art” any marks or objects they are able to create programmatically. Nascent fields like neuro-science and cognitive psychology make great…

    • In reply to #4 by Tech Curmudgeon:

      Part of the problem is that scientists and technologists have historically overstated the significance of their work. Computer scientists, for example, regard as “art” any marks or objects they are able to create programmatically. Nascent fields like neuro-science and cognitive psychology make great claims for understanding human behavior, though they have barely scratched the surface. Movie theaters are awash in 3d computer-animated pablum that’s written formulaically, and produced with minimal human involvement.

      How is this relevant compared to the actual results science has achieved?

      I think people in the humanities are not anti-science so much as trying to defend the turf that science pretends to have mastered, but has actually trivialized instead.

      Alright, shouldn’t the people in the humanitites then be looking for the scientific explanation that most closely fit their field of research?

      Or is it the scientists job to educate their supposed colleagues?

      • I think there are wide arenas in which scientists and “artists” co-exist productively, but there are still a great many areas in the humanities which science has yet to account for. The fact that computers can be programmed to create visual images or to write grammatically correct sentences do not make those art or literature. Note that I’m not talking about artists using computers to create art, but rather the substitution of algorithms for human conception.

        Interestingly music, arguably the most abstract art form, seems to be the one that can be most closely simulated by machine, since there are “rules” of tonality, harmony, etc. that are programmable.

        In reply to #6 by DHudson:

        In reply to #4 by Tech Curmudgeon:

        Part of the problem is that scientists and technologists have historically overstated the significance of their work. Computer scientists, for example, regard as “art” any marks or objects they are able to create programmatically. Nascent fields like neuro-science…

        • In reply to #11 by Tech Curmudgeon:

          I think there are wide arenas in which scientists and “artists” co-exist productively, but there are still a great many areas in the humanities which science has yet to account for. The fact that computers can be programmed to create visual images or to write grammatically correct sentences do not make those art or literature.

          And yet art is created based on those algorithms utilizing the tools science provided. Your definition of art is subjective and yet you claim artistic objectiveness while you try define what is art and what is not.

          Do you not see the paradox of your claims?

          Interestingly music, arguably the most abstract art form, seems to be the one that can be most closely simulated by machine, since there are “rules” of tonality, harmony, etc. that are programmable.

          Music is far from abstract. It is very real and very measurable.

          • In reply to #16 by DHudson:

            And yet art is created based on those algorithms utilizing the tools science provided. Your definition of art is subjective and yet you claim artistic objectiveness while you try define what is art and what is not.

            Do you not see the paradox of your claims?

            I’m not claiming artistic “objectivity.” I’m saying “art” is fundamentally about being human. It is about exploring and expressing something about the human experience. That is what distinguishes art from craft. There’s no paradox here.

            Music is far from abstract. It is very real and very measurable.

            Do you even know what abstract means? With the possible exception of what’s called “program music”, music is non-representative. Unlike theater, painting, sculpture, etc., music doesn’t represent or emulate any mundane experience. In that sense, it is abstract.

          • In reply to #21 by Tech Curmudgeon:

            I’m not claiming artistic “objectivity.” I’m saying “art” is fundamentally about being human. It is about exploring and expressing something about the human experience. That is what distinguishes art from craft. There’s no paradox here.

            And my point is that science is integrated in art and vice versa. Science is also about the human experience and how we perceive reality. The lines are blurry and your statement about the turf of the humanities simply doesn’t add up, imo.

            Do you even know what abstract means? With the possible exception of what’s called “program music”, music is non-representative. Unlike theater, painting, sculpture, etc., music doesn’t represent or emulate any mundane experience. In that sense, it is abstract.

            Music is written and perfomed by people, just like manuscripts are written and perfomed by other people.
            Of course music also represents mundane experiences.
            Art is part of human culture just like science is a part of human culture, so I fail to see the distinct line between them.

    • In reply to #4 by Tech Curmudgeon:

      Part of the problem is that scientists and technologists have historically overstated the significance of their work. Computer scientists, for example, regard as “art” any marks or objects they are able to create programmatically. Nascent fields like neuro-science and cognitive psychology make great…

      Really? Sure that turf was not always trivial in comparison to science?

      • In reply to #8 by Neodarwinian:

        Really? Sure that turf was not always trivial in comparison to science?

        In a previous comment I said to Curmudgeon that scientists don’t take cheap shots at the humanities the way the articles that Pinker quoted take cheap shots at science. Thanks for proving me wrong. Its ridiculous to claim that great art is trivial next to science. They are both important and neither one trivializes the other. I feel sorry for people who can’t see the beauty and get inspired the way I do at things like evolution but I feel exactly the same about people who can’t be inspired by great art and music.

        • In reply to #32 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #8 by Neodarwinian:

          Really? Sure that turf was not always trivial in comparison to science?

          In a previous comment I said to Curmudgeon that scientists don’t take cheap shots at the humanities the way the articles that Pinker

          I feel sorry for people who can not prioritize correctly. Do you really mean to say that some piece of art is on par with what has come out of and will come out of the LHC? Ridiculous! No comparison. You need to learn to distribute, not to set equal two things that are not close to equal. Rather like saying some one 5′ 4” is as tall as one 6′! Art may have it’s place at the table, but that is at the foot of the table these days.

          PS: I did not cheapen what I was shooting at, post modernism did that!

    • In reply to #4 by Tech Curmudgeon:

      I think people in the humanities are not anti-science so much as trying to defend the turf that science pretends to have mastered, but has actually trivialized instead.

      Can you give just one concrete example? One quote from some scientist that “pretends to have mastered” some part of the humanities? Because I’ve never seen that. Whenever I see someone talking about the science behind art or music they always present it in a very humble way, making clear that they don’t expect to be able to use science say to write a symphony like Beethoven but rather perhaps science can help us understand why music like his resonates so much with most people.

      • In reply to #13 by Red Dog:

        Can you give just one concrete example?

        The most immediate examples that come to mind are various works exhibited in SIGGRAPH art shows, that were basically just examples of some interesting graphic that someone had written a program to generate. In A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Joyce asks if someone, in anger, hacks at a piece of wood, and it ends up resembling a horse, whether it’s art. (My recollection of it is vague, but it was something like that.) That’s basically what these early programs were doing … running idle loops that happened to produce something somewhat visually interesting. People used to program minicomputers to flash a pattern with the lights on the front panel, so you could see if the computer was busy or idle. Was that art?

        • In reply to #23 by Tech Curmudgeon:

          I guess the discussion is drifting to the aesthetic issue of defining arts, which might be also great to talk about but less relevant to the topic here.

          First of all, I also agree with Tech Curmudgeon’s basic idea. But I guess we should be more cautious about the contexts:
          I think most of scientists are not responsible for the exaggeration of scientific results. In most cases, such overestimations are made in the context of public communications, in where positive tone are more important than accuracy. Some scientist with actual huge achievement turns into a scientific journalist and tell people that s/he already solved all problems and everything can be explained by his/her rules. But in most cases, again, scientists talk about possibilities, as far as in academia. Some may blame public journalism, since similar things also can happen with studies in humanities.

          Also, in addition, I really like your wording:

          science pretends to have mastered, but has actually trivialized instead.
          But modeling, or abstraction, is the first thing you should do in order to explain something, isn’t it? Again, claiming ‘mastered’ it after accomplishing the very first step would be really embarrassing… The next thing we should do is to expand the simple model toward the complex real-world.

          • In reply to #24 by sg:

            In reply to #23 by Tech Curmudgeon:

            I guess the discussion is drifting to the aesthetic issue of defining arts, which might be also great to talk about but less relevant to the topic here.

            First of all, I also agree with Tech Curmudgeon’s basic idea. But I guess we should be more cautious about th…

            Then I would chastise any scientist who tries to say too much with too little, and thereby “trivialize” anything. That’s still a long way from claiming science as a whole trivializes art, which is simply another manifestation of the “science is reductionistic, naive, simplistic, etc.” protest.

          • In reply to #25 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #23 by Tech Curmudgeon:
            Then I would chastise any scientist who tries to say too much with too little, and thereby “trivialize” anything. That’s still a long way from claiming science as a whole trivializes art, which is simply another manifestation of the “science is reductionistic, naive, simplistic, etc.” protest.

            Exactly.

        • In reply to #23 by Tech Curmudgeon:

          In reply to #13 by Red Dog:

          Can you give just one concrete example?

          The most immediate examples that come to mind are various works exhibited in SIGGRAPH art shows, that were basically just examples of some interesting graphic that someone had written a program to generate. In A Portrait of the Ar…

          I think we are talking about Apples and Oranges here. Pinker is complaining about people in the humanities who write op ed articles that take cheap shots at science. You seemed at first to be responding by saying scientists more or less do the same. Citing some SIGGRAPH articles where some guys made silly claims about their work being art is hardly the same thing IMO.

          Also, this applies to our discussion about programming and art. I totally misunderstood your original comment, sorry about that. I thought you were referring to programmers who (as I used to) feel as passionate about their code as an artist or composer feels about their creations and who claim (again as I would) that a lot of the same kinds of thought processes go into creating great software as creating great music. I would never claim that my program that helped a big trucking company route trucks belongs in any museum, not even of modern art.

          In fact to say more about where I was coming from I use that argument to promote the importance of the arts not to denigrate them. When I’ve talked to other developers about that its in the context of saying things like “I’m so glad we had strong music program in my school because I feel that learning to write music helped make me a good developer as much as learning things like computer science” and the developers that I talk to about this usually agree. There are always exceptions though of course.

          So my only point was that in my experience scientists seldom knock the humanities but people in the humanities take cheap shots at science a lot, look at the links in Pinker’s article for examples.

          • In reply to #30 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #23 by Tech Curmudgeon:

            In reply to #13 by Red Dog:

            Can you give just one concrete example?

            The most immediate examples that come to mind are various works exhibited in SIGGRAPH art shows, that were basically just examples of some interesting graphic that someone had written a program to generate. In A Portrait of the Ar…

            I think we are talking about Apples and Oranges here. Pinker is complaining about people in the humanities who write op ed articles that take cheap shots at science. You seemed at first to be responding by saying scientists more or less do the same. Citing some SIGGRAPH articles where some guys made silly claims about their work being art is hardly the same thing IMO.

            I wasn’t talking about articles, but actual works exhibited at SIGGRAPH conferences as part of the “art” show. For example, at one conference, I remember much praise being heaped on a work that was essentially a visualization of a mathematical formula. Now I can appreciate that this visualization was creative, informative, even beautiful. But I think describing this as art overextends the use of the term art, which would then include kids’ blueprints of iron filings aligning along magnetic flux lines, or the trail left in a bed of sand by a Foucault pendulum.

            I’m a strong believer in scientific research and approaches, but I think we need to be humble about what science has actually accomplished (so far) compared with what humans are capable of by other means.

            So my only point was that in my experience scientists seldom knock the humanities but people in the humanities take cheap shots at science a lot, look at the links in Pinker’s article for examples.

            Well, I think there have been “cheap” and “expensive” shots on both sides. It’s been said that if all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. I think most people tend to view the world through whatever lenses they’ve learned to use, and tend to believe their approaches are the most powerful. The conflict, of course, comes when people with different world views collide over the same turf … science and religion, science and art, etc.

            To give a very concrete example, I believe there’s a lot of potential for neuroscience to help understand Shakespeare and why he wrote the way he did. Linguistic analysis can certainly reveal a lot about his vocabulary, and maybe help determine which plays are actually his vs. someone else’s. These insights can give new shades of meaning to Shakespeare’s work, but ultimately, they don’t help us understand the work or why it’s so powerful. At least, not yet.

          • In reply to #34 by Tech Curmudgeon:

            I wasn’t talking about articles, but actual works exhibited at SIGGRAPH conferences as part of the “art” show.

            My point is the fact that you didn’t like work at some conference is irrelevant to what we are discussing. Its not at all the same as writing an article saying science is intruding on the sacred space of the humanities or religion.

            Well, I think there have been “cheap” and “expensive” shots on both sides.

            Given that Neodarwin made a ridiculous claim about the arts being trivial compared to science I can’t completely disagree. And actually if you cared to search back long enough in my comment history you could find several examples where I criticize people who IMO were taking cheap shots at the humanities in comments on other articles. Actually, on this site the attitude to philosophy and the social sciences is even more disrespectful a lot of the time. So I agree both sides can be jerks at times and being a jerk toward anyone (even a theist but that’s another argument) is never a good thing.

            But there is a big difference between someone making a comment on an Internet site and someone writing an opinion piece in The Huffington Post or the New Republic. To make your case you need to reference some articles by scientists that have the same tone attacking the humanities as the ones sited by Pinker attacking science. If you can find them I’ll condemn them as well but I tend to read a lot and while I instantly recognized what Pinker was talking about I can’t say that I’ve seen the same kinds of articles from scientists about the humanities. If anything when people like Dawkins talk about things like art and music he is usually extremely complimentary and acknowledges (contrasted with people like Neodarwin) that they are equally relevant to humanity as science, which is what I think as well.

          • In reply to #35 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #34 by Tech Curmudgeon:

            I wasn’t talking about articles, but actual works exhibited at SIGGRAPH conferences as part of the “art” show.

            My point is the fact that you didn’t like work at some conference is irrelevant to what we are discussing. Its not at all the same as writing an articl…

            ” Given that Neodarwin made a ridiculous claim about the arts being trivial compared to science “

            And I make that claim again! What is ridiculous is that some people, artistes for instance, have no sense of perspective and their priorities are dichotomous, not distributed. Art is trivial compared to science.

  4. I haven’t even finished but I agree absolutely. Also, I would add several of the American founding fathers to the list. Franklin and Jefferson in particular were profoundly interested in science.

  5. In reply to #4 by Tech Curmudgeon:

    Part of the problem is that scientists and technologists have historically overstated the significance of their work. Computer scientists, for example, regard as “art” any marks or objects they are able to create programmatically.

    They think that because they are right. Before I became a software developer I wanted to compose classical music and I can tell you that nothing ever felt as much like sitting down at the piano and trying to write music as sitting down at my Symbolics AI workstation and developing a program. It really feels very much the same. You work both top down and bottom up. You solve bits and pieces that are disconnected and then suddenly you get an idea of how they should all fit together and you try it out and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

    BTW, I’m not talking about the kind of programming where someone hands you a spec and you write the code. I’m talking about the kind of programming (which happens less and less these days as programming goes from art to engineering) where someone just describes a problem to you and sort of sketches out a solution and you both have to think out the functional details of the solution as well as the technical details of how to program it. That kind of software development feels very much like composing music and I would bet Mitt Romney dollars that if they did MRI studies on programmers and composers they would find the brain centres that light up are virtually identical.

    Actually trying to explain it is pointless, if you are a good programmer you will probably know what I mean (most of the good developers that I’ve discussed this with totally agree) and if not its one of those things that’s impossible to explain.

    • In reply to #10 by Red Dog:

      They think that because they are right. Before I became a software developer I wanted to compose classical music and I can tell you that nothing ever felt as much like sitting down at the piano and trying to write music as sitting down at my Symbolics AI workstation and developing a program. It really feels very much the same. You work both top down and bottom up. You solve bits and pieces that are disconnected and then suddenly you get an idea of how they should all fit together and you try it out and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

      The fact that you find the two similar does not make one art or the other one not. I’ve been a software engineer for over 30 years, designing and developing a lot of highly interactive graphics software, graphics editors, design tools, etc., and I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s nothing whatsoever like actually design publications, creating cartoons or illustrations, sketching from life or any other activities commonly considered part of making visual art.

      • In reply to #14 by Tech Curmudgeon:

        The fact that you find the two similar does not make one art or the other one not. I’ve been a software engineer for over 30 years, designing and developing a lot of highly interactive graphics software, graphics editors, design tools, etc., and I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s nothing whatsoever like actually design publications, creating cartoons or illustrations, sketching from life or any other activities commonly considered part of making visual art.

        Sorry I get people confused that way often. When I say “art” I mean it as in “the arts” creativity in general and specifically music. Its too bad you don’t see how programming can be like that it makes me think you really don’t see the creativity that an individual can bring to programming and are missing out in some of the joy in your work. Its also something I think was much truer back in the days when people like me were called hackers (which had a totally different meaning then, it didn’t mean someone who broke into a system but a really good but undisciplined programmer) and cowboys. Cowboys are frowned on these days because the whole process is much more disciplined and controlled then it used to be. And while that unfortunately takes the art (artisticness, creativity) out of lots of it it is an inevitable development as the engineering matures.

        • In reply to #18 by Red Dog:

          Sorry I get people confused that way often. When I say “art” I mean it as in “the arts” creativity in general and specifically music.

          Creativity is not the same as art. It’s possible to be creative in almost any field. Chefs, decorators, flower arrangers, baristas … all can be very creative, but I don’t think most people consider these “arts,” though the term is sometime applied as a compound, as in “culinary arts.”

          Its too bad you don’t see how programming can be like that it makes me think you really don’t see the creativity that an individual can bring to programming and are missing out in some of the joy in your work.

          Again, creativity does not equal art. I’ve seen plenty of very creative software, and I like to think I’ve written some. That doesn’t make it art. Finding a new, better database optimization algorithm, or a more efficient way to make a fault-tolerant network are certainly creative, but I don’t think those would be considered works of art.

          -pd

    • In reply to #10 by Red Dog:

      In reply to #4 by Tech Curmudgeon:

      Part of the problem is that scientists and technologists have historically overstated the significance of their work. Computer scientists, for example, regard as “art” any marks or objects they are able to create programmatically.

      They think that because they ar…

      I’m software developer and agree it is often thought of as an art (it is expressed in a language and under this definition maths is an art).
      For me software is reminiscent of the sculpture I used to study as an undergraduate. It has structure and whereas with sculpture you are working within the confines of gravity in programming you are working within the confines of logic. In both cases though, you are working to a plan in your head with little to help you visualise the finished result.
      Having said that although all good programmers love elegance I’ve yet to hear any describe a graphic as “art”, although I have heard designers described as the “colouring in” section.
      I wonder how many other regulars on here are in IT there seems a few.

      • In reply to #37 by mr_DNA:

        For me software is reminiscent of the sculpture I used to study as an undergraduate. It has structure and whereas with sculpture you are working within the confines of gravity in programming you are working within the confines of logic. In both cases though, you are working to a plan in your head with little to help you visualise the finished result.

        Exactly. Its interesting I think everyone relates back to whatever creative venue they were most familiar with. For you its sculpture for me its composing music but I agree, that is all I was saying, they feel very much the same.

        Having said that although all good programmers love elegance I’ve yet to hear any describe a graphic as “art”, although I have heard designers described as the “colouring in” section. I wonder how many other regulars on here are in IT there seems a few.

        And just to be clear I never meant to imply otherwise. I’ve never even done any complex graphic programming, well once we had this awesome algorithm based on new research on graph theory from U of I but that was more about creating clean graph layouts for complex (e.g. network) graphs automatically not about art. I never had graphics in mind at all when I was talking about programming being artistic it was about the process and the emotions not that the results should go in a museum.

        I’ve known several graphic designers, some very dear friends actually and they always had strong art backgrounds and if you implied that what they did on the computer was true art not only didn’t they agree they would object rather severely.

  6. Hurrah!

    Excellent article. Just excellent!

    PoMo was the first fight back by the miffed and unsettled amongst the keepers of the humanities. This was a ball of their own that they could keep and play with. Indeed it wasn’t just one other ball it was a load of balls that could be handed around, usefully devaluing the currency. Value they said was local, relative, contingent and what we say it is today. We’ll have no more of this old fashioned attempt at finding overarching (or under-girding) values. Cultures are sacred as is cultural knowledge. Balls are non overlapping.

    PoMo bollocks were knackered by the start of the noughties, but are probably due for a relaunch by all the lazy fuckers who can’t be bothered to acknowledge the one good game in town. We may be up to PoPoPoMo by now (and thats a lot of Po), but I see the the problem as declining with each bounce.

    The big split in CP Snow’s world, the end of Renaissance Man and Woman, probably happened with the nostalgia of the late Wromantics, probably got better in the early twentieth century with art discovering the psychologies of perception and the unconscious mind, Modernism (Futurism!) then the crash of the post WWi and WWII dystopias and its pomo fallout.

    In the UK, at least, I feel that cultural balance is being restored as never before. The mix of TV and radio programs and the programs that mix become more numerous and of higher quality. The real threat of back slide as Pinker correctly perceives it is in the US, though even here demographics will pull things around soon enough.

    • In reply to #17 by phil rimmer:

      The real threat of back slide as Pinker correctly perceives it is in the US, though even here demographics will pull things around soon enough.

      I am positive that it is just a matter of time.

      Damn, I must be in a good mood today.

  7. I have long held the view that Art as experienced by the…consumer is a psychology experiment of the the most intimate and informative sort performed by the consumer on herself at the moment of her choosing. Artists are the creators of the material for the experiment and the good ones are those who have the most insight to the clangs and resonances set up in their various and multitudinous brain modules and have some insight into how, despite its loss of novelty to the creator, how it may yet strike intriguing and unexpected chords in the other’s head.

    Ramachandran’s theories of aesthetics are a good start at understanding the possible reasons why evolved creatures might have such obscure tastes and ticklishness and why they need to be scratched on a regular basis. I once taught an art class in college (right after getting a physics degree) which utilised a lot of Richard Gregory’s work on the psychology of perception and how and under what circumstance certain optical illusions may occur. I think it allowed people to think about what they were doing in new and revealing ways, but…

    Artists create, then pace up and down, look/listen, screw up the work and repeat with a small iteration. Whilst broad rules of aesthetics can be formed (maybe they can be very detailed) only a living creature with emotional attachments drawn from life (say “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey” wheezed out of an old radiogram tuned to Radio Luxembourg) might conceive the emotional shocks such shared experience may bring with just a hint of that sound unconsciously referenced at a moment of distress. Novelty of experience comes with artists working until they find that great subtlety of novel experience that cannot be written forwards but only experienced and recognised afterwards. An artist might intuit a something is out there, but it is stumbling around vetoing the less effective and keeping the final discovery that nets the masterpiece. Art evolves in its creation and dies repeatedly by its aesthetic indifference and emotional failure.

    We’ll need a lot more than IBM’s Watson before artists can put their feet up. Watson may need to go to school fail some exams and fall in love. He’ll need dopamine and cortisol, probably a spliff or two and fond memories of his great great PDP8 grandma.

  8. I am a science ignoramus,nonetheless, I have enormous admiration and respect for scientists and their work.I have noticed the tendency of some people in other fields of endeavour to put science down.This baffles me because we have all benefitted from science.There is ole George W Bush and his science- given stent as an example.There is the old and everlasting problem of ego raising it’s ugly head, I suppose.Nothing works like science and everyone knows it.
    Why can’ we all work together ,each in her own field,(except for theology,which is a complete waste of time)contributing in our own unique ways?Yes,I know,I’m a dreamer and terribly naive.
    Love Steven Pinker’s books btw.

    • In reply to #26 by Christiana Magdalene Moodley:

      .I have noticed the tendency of some people in other fields of endeavour to put science down.This baffles me because we have all benefitted from science.There is ole George W Bush and his science- given stent as an example.

      In the case of Bush and his pals I have an explanation for why they are so anti-science. There is a dogma in the US that virtually all Republicans and many others share as well. Its not religious in the normal sense but IMO its as strong and counter-rational as some of the worst religious fundamentalism and that is the dogma of the free market. The idea is that government can do nothing good and business can do nothing bad. Anything can be improved by the “free market” including things like healthcare and basic infrastructure such as clean water. The rights of a few people to sell as many guns as possible is as or more important than the basic safety of the average citizen.

      This dogma requires them more and more to come up against science because science tells them that global climate change is real and that public support for healthcare and schooling work far better than the free market. Indeed even their definition of “free market” goes against what an honest economist would say is a true free market because what it really comes down to is that government takes all the risk and cleans up the harm while a few ever larger corporations monopolize commerce.

  9. This is a very fine article surveying current developments (actual and potential) in academia, where the role of science has become much more prominent than it was some sixty or more years ago. Steven Pinker is spot on to mention the postmodernism that has rendered humanities departments incapable of seeing the need to adapt to this changed state of affairs by taking advantage of what science now has to offer to enrich their own fields of study. It is also becoming very clear that no-one can any longer claim to be an educated person without at least some knowledge of general science and an understanding of the scientific method.

  10. Steven Pinker writes well, doesn’t he? Prof Dawkins is another example of the literary ability of scientists, as both an eminent scientist who has been elected to the Royal Society and a member of the Royal Society of Literature for his distinction as a writer.

  11. What a fantastic article. I have had my mind given a pretty ferocious jump-start by reading it.

    Would it be the opinion of those in academia using this website, that in many ways, certain idioms find themselves departing company due to how they reason about the world? If so, what an unfortunate regression. Steven makes a wonderful case for the Enlightenment, the individuals involved, the multi-disciplinary nature it embraced and fostered and the positive difference it has made to our world and our understanding of it. What’s not to like? Are the humanities forgetting about the contribution made in its’ name at that time?

    It seems with an ever increasing understanding of the reality of things, it becomes harder for what may appear initially as disparate disciplines, to stay at arm’s reach.

  12. @link – I take this cutting-edge wisdom from the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University.

    Demonstrating a shallow and supercilious critic whose comprehension and literacy are too limited to actually understand what he reads, before offering a ludicrous strawman summary! !

    The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism.

    Ah! The theist invention of “Scientism” !

    That scientific counter-dogmatic evidenced rational understanding which has to be ditched in order to hold on to scientifically refuted theist dogmatic delusions!

    It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.

    Or with an understanding of psychological projection, This piece of writing is a fine example of how religion can turn an intelligent man into a scientifically illiterate fool.

    Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

    Ah! Another blitherer of emotive words, who does not understand their connection to the physical realities of the material universe.

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