Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Response to Stephen Pinker: Science is Not My Enemy But...

I was startled by Stephen Pinker’s article in the New Republic this week:  Science is Not Your Enemy: an impassioned plea to neglected, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.  Even though “ignored and under-appreciated school-teachers” didn't make his list, I felt like his article was a direct response to my recent blog post – Smiling at all Science. In it, I suggested that our elevation of science over cultural and human understanding was not healthy and could even be harmful.  It turns out I’m thinking like a “humanist.” Pinker, as his sub-title hints, mocks humanists by characterizing them as outmoded, lacking a “progressive agenda” and rather hysterical demonizers of science.  He states that the “mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”

And he’s right.  Sort of.  But equally indispensable is the humanist mindset.  It isn't that science is “evil,” but that scientific approaches untempered by metaphysical values can be dangerous.  Consider the recent exposure of the unthinkable medical experiments performed on Aboriginal children.  In my beautiful, peaceful, “enlightened” backyard.  In living memory.  Science can’t be blamed for the heinous use of scientific methods to harm, but we must always remember how the mindset of science can be used against our quest for peace and good in the world.  As Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley writes, “Reason respects differences, and imagination the similitude of things.”  It is exactly, I think, a focus on differences that allows us to forget our common humanity.

Philosopher Simone Weil, in her essay “Human Personality” writes:
What is it, exactly, that prevents me from putting that man’s eyes out if I am allowed to do so and if it takes my fancy?  Although it is the whole of him that is sacred to me, he is not sacred in all respects and from every point of view.  He is not sacred in as much as he happens to have long arms, blue eyes, or possibly commonplace thoughts.  Nor as a duke, if he is one; nor as a dustman, if that is what he is. Nothing of all this would stay my hand. What would stay it is the knowledge that if someone were to put out his eyes, his soul would be lacerated by the thought that harm was being done to him. At the bottom of the heart of every human being…there is something that goes on indominantly expecting…that good and not evil will be done to him.  
Stephen Pinker concludes that the humanities need to embrace science: “A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding.” And I agree.  But science, perhaps even more urgently, needs to embrace the humanities.  Let us bring story and faith and philosophy to our scientific endeavors.  Medicine, learning from the ancient wisdom that it once colluded against, is beginning to understand that healing the body cannot be done in isolation from healing the mind and spirit.   Teaching, too, while it may be informed by research, needs to be guided by human wisdom, the heart, the spirit and love.  It is when we lose sight of these guiding values that we risk harming our children.  I can’t “prove” it; I can only live it.

No comments:

Post a Comment