Can This Couple Work It Out?

By Iain McGilchristSeptember 25, 2013

STEVEN PINKER IS, of course, both clever and influential, and there is much that I would agree with him about. So when he makes what he calls an impassioned plea for an understanding between science and the humanities (“Science Is Not Your Enemy,” TNR, August 6, 2013), something that I feel strongly about, too, and indeed believe to be of the greatest importance for our future, it seems churlish to find fault, especially as I am grateful to him for the opportunity to explore in more detail issues about which it is obvious we both care very much. But for all that he claims to be setting out to reassure his colleagues in the humanities, I doubt that his essay will have the desired effect. In fact I fear that it may appear to some to exemplify everything that those in the humanities fear to be the case about the contemporary science establishment.

The marriage, or at any rate the peaceful cohabitation, of science and the humanities is essential for the health of our civilization. I speak as someone who has a foot in each camp, and an interest in their rapprochement. I agree wholly with Professor Pinker that each can learn from the other. And he is right to recognize that all is not as well as it might be in this relationship. Perhaps he feels he is offering therapy.

But in any relationship there are at least two points of view, two stories to tell about where the trouble lies. To engage successfully in therapy you need to see both.

Pinker seems aggrieved at the lack of respect accorded to science by the humanities. They use terms such as "scientism" that he does not like. They call the philosophy of some scientists naive and simplistic. They do hurtful things like refer too often to the ills entailed on us by technology and science, instead of being grateful for their undoubted achievements. How could his partner treat him so badly, when he has done so much for her?

But his partner has her own story to tell. According to her, the humanities are in danger of submersion. She sees — something which Pinker himself recognizes — the number of students taking courses in the humanities at all levels dwindling. At the same time she hears the call from government for more and more young people to go into technical subjects such as science and information technology. She sees budgets being cut and money being diverted from arts and humanities faculties to science. She sees the multimillion-dollar research programs, the empires that are founded on expensive, sexy machines. She finds herself having to defend the study of Mesopotamian civilization in terms of its relevance to current needs — tourism, or the Middle East foreign affairs desk. Rightly or wrongly, she identifies the scientific and technological mindset as a potent cause of this uncivilized, utilitarian way of thinking, which leaves almost everything in the humanities out of the picture. She sees on TV, hears on the radio, and reads in the papers scientists pronouncing on everything under the sun, as though being a good geneticist or a good astronomer gives some privileged insight into what sort of thing a human being is, what sort of place the world we live in might be, and whether or not there is a God. At the same time, in a mirror image of Pinker, she sees among many of her scientific colleagues, in Pinker’s words, “a philistine indifference to [the humanities] that shades into contempt.” She hears him refer to a belief in a spiritual dimension to life as "superstition." Pinker, she hints, is not the only one around here who has a right to be miffed.

For all couples it is useful to attend to the boundaries. Boundaries need to be flexible and semipermeable, and are hard to define — all the imprecise stuff that Pinker deplores. But they are nonetheless important for that. They are not to be treated as barriers that keep things apart, but on the contrary, as the mutually respected markers that make cooperation possible. They are what enable the relationship to function at all.

With this in mind, Pinker’s opening strategy is revealing. He starts by redescribing all the philosophers he admires — Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith — as cognitive neuroscientists or evolutionary and social psychologists. If you are later going to claim that science can answer the big philosophical questions, it is, of course, a smart move to have philosophers on your team. But for someone who wants to reassure that he is not engaged in "an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities," it is perhaps a little ill-judged. Anyway, was Kant — or Hume, who denied the reality of cause and effect — really a “cognitive neuroscientist”? I think the only polite response is: “Er, no.”

A distinction does not have to be of the hard and fast, exclusive kind, and it certainly should not imply that one cannot learn from the other — quite the opposite, as I have suggested. But the impression Pinker creates is that philosophers are just neuroscientists manqués, and that if they had only known what Pinker knows about the brain, they could have wrapped things up in no time. At the other end of the therapy couch, what is heard is: “Darling, it’s not that I’m better than you –– and in your own sweet way I do recognize that you try to help me with my work — I suppose it’s just that I am lucky enough to have had a better education.” Despite Pinker’s protestations, if I were a humanities professor I would be wondering quite where my partner thought I figured in this relationship.

Pinker’s next stratagem is to discredit the very terms his partner is using in her attempt to alert him to his bad behavior. This is common in couples sessions: “Overbearing? Complacent? What do you mean? Define your terms.” Instead of doing a bit of self-examination and admitting that at times he or she has said some pretty outrageous things, the instinct is to discredit the language one’s partner is using. Pinker is obviously irritated by the term “scientism,” and he wants to deprive us of its use. He remarks that it has no clear meaning and calls it just a “boo-word.” One might point out that there are many very useful terms that cannot easily be defined — and the more important they are, the harder it gets. Other words, such as realism, idealism, nominalism, and essentialism, have not been abandoned despite being much more slippery. Be that as it may, I am surprised that a chap like Pinker finds it so hard to understand what is meant by scientism. He himself refers to examples of the sort of thing that it covers — “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems” — but then quickly disowns them, as though they have nothing to do with good science. Perfectly correct — they don’t. They are not examples of good science, but of a naïve belief, unfortunately not at all uncommon, that science can offer a full account of the world and grounds our knowledge of all that exists. This is what is meant by scientism. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Some of the most public names in science frequently make such scientistic pronouncements. Pinker is quick to disassociate himself from such beliefs, as I say. But is he not saying something similar when he insists that science is “indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality”? Indispensable? How, one wonders, did Burke, Bach, and the Buddha do so very well without neuroscience to enlighten them?

I am sorry, too, if he doesn’t like the words “naïve” and “simplistic.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they were overused, and I certainly understand why a sophisticated thinker such as Pinker would be unhappy about them being applied to himself. But the way to stop them being applied is not to lament the terms, but to make sure they lack a target. If ever there was a place for their proper use, it is in the description of what passes for a philosophy among a very large number of contemporary scientists. Our educational system, at least in Britain, has become specialized in such a way that it is now quite possible to become a scientist with only the most rudimentary acquaintance with the history of cultures and ideas. This is regrettable, but it is a fact. One would think from reading Pinker that it was just a lunatic fringe of scientists that believe, in an unproblematic way, that the world, the body, and the brain are mechanisms, and that only matter exists. In my experience, such people are common right in the core of the scientific establishment, and when challenged they seem sometimes genuinely baffled, and almost hurt, that any intelligent person could doubt the world picture they have so unreflectingly adopted. I have pointed out to scientific colleagues that, as Pinker says, “[they] themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise,” but in my experience they are impervious to this logic, and rarely turn a hair. One might have thought Pinker would welcome the term scientism, since it helps to divorce real science from its misapplication, a divorce he should surely be keen to encourage.

Pinker is not averse to a boo-word himself. “Superstition” is one of his favorites, and it is made to do a lot of work — largely to cover everything that is not demonstrable in the lab. In his critique it is used to stigmatize religion, and he points to human sacrifice, witch trials, inquisitions, and other things that I have rather missed out on, having spent too little time recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Given how many people continue to believe there is more to life than a purely material account would suggest, how scientific is it to imply that all these people are the sort to kebab your liver as soon as they look at you? Pinker would I'm sure accept that religious people deplore the Inquisition as much as he does. He does not like references to Nazi medical experiments or the Tuskegee syphilis study, rather closer to our own era, for a similar reason, because, in his view, these past abuses are not true to the spirit of the enterprise. And none of us should ever forget that, having destroyed the churches as monuments to superstition, an atheist regime based on a philosophy of scientific materialism such as Stalin’s was not impeded in carrying out atrocities on a scale that beggars the imagination; or that the aggressively antireligious regime of Pol Pot had its own inquisitions, which were among the most brutal and appalling that the world has seen — neither of these in the Middle Ages, but in our own era of apparent enlightenment. It would be as absurd to blame these things on science, or atheism, as it is to blame them on belief in the divine. They can happen anywhere, anytime, not because religion or science is bad, but because some people are bad. And they happen more readily wherever blinkered people have grandiose ideas about how to improve humanity, something that ought to give us all cause for reflection, whatever our beliefs.

Perhaps, it is worth mentioning, while we are about it, that much of the scientific research of the 18th and 19th centuries was not only not decried by clergy, as seems to be widely believed, but actually carried out by them. Just as he dislikes being lumped with those who believe that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems,” I expect religious people are rather tired of being lumped with fundamentalists, and find religious fundamentalists every bit as distasteful as scientific ones. Just as Pinker should not be condemned because scientists used to believe that there was something called phlogiston and that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul, I would think religious people might not accept being called superstitious because some of them used to believe that the earth was literally created in seven days.


There are two beliefs that, according to Pinker, “scientism [sic] seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life”: “that the world is intelligible” and “that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” Well, fancy that! So …   let me get this straight — the humanities do not believe they are engaged in understanding the world? And philosophy is a short stroll in the park compared with the serious business of science? One begins to wonder if this couples therapy will work out, after all.

It is particularly intriguing that Pinker chooses understanding the world as the distinctive feature of science. In yet another mirror moment, the humanities have often been of the view that that was precisely what distinguished their enterprise from that of science. Once again, of course, there is truth on both sides. It all depends on what you understand by understanding. Understanding — not the workings, but the meanings — of falling in love, the Thirty Years’ War, Pride and Prejudice, quietism, Uluru, the St John Passion, the Lake District, Las Meninas, a waterfall, the celebration of Mass, "Gloomy Sunday," a skylark, a Pietà of Duccio, a harp, Buchenwald, or even a computer requires an understanding of things that can only be gleaned from experience, and by that I mean the experience of someone who is open to a kind of understanding that science can never bring. One thought experiment makes this obvious: it is possible to imagine someone having the technical knowledge that science can bring to these areas — from the perspective of geology, for instance — and no real grasp of their importance to human history, emotion, or understanding. What is lost in our understanding of the Thirty Years' War if we don’t have a scientific background in geological science? Very little.

This is not at all to say that science has no contribution to make — of course it does, and I don’t know where Pinker gets the idea that this is not accepted, and even welcomed. There is an almost insatiable, if at times ill-judged, appetite for the kind of understanding that science can bring to the arts, as one can tell from the media, as well as from the invitations I receive, and I am sure other scientists receive, from arts and humanities faculties, to discuss whatever it may be — music, dance, architecture, theology, or philosophy — in relation to the brain. The phenomenal success of Pinker’s books with a nonspecialist public alone makes that obvious, I should have thought. The worry is more that we will lose sight of the fact that it is only a partial understanding, at best, that science can bring. Its contribution is of a different sort and comes with a different agenda.

It is hard for science to get beyond the Enlightenment tenets identified by Isaiah Berlin:

That all genuine questions can be answered, that if a question cannot be answered it is not a question; that all these answers are knowable, that they can be discovered by means which can be learnt and taught to other persons; and that all the answers must be compatible with one another.

I imagine Pinker won’t like me calling such beliefs naïve, either, but Berlin clearly thought they were, and I should hope that most reflective individuals with experience of life, including Pinker, would think so too.

John Dewey called neglect of context the gravest mistake made by philosophers. It is also a mistake when it is made by science. Science tends not to be good at context: its main preoccupation is taking things apart, and taking them out of the whole in which they inhere, in order to know what they “really are.” Though in many cases this will tell you how something works, it has no chance of answering the question of what it is, since it only is what it is in context. The same gene will act quite differently in a different context, just as the same words or notes mean something quite different in a different poem or quintet, and analyzing them as individual words or notes only gets you so far. Similarly, although we feign to be able to isolate entities, physics tells us that, in fact, one cannot understand any one particle fully without acknowledging that its behavior can be influenced by particles at the other end of the universe. The scientific method prioritizes clarity, efficiency, a direct, linear approach to achieving its target, and the belief that a thing and its opposite cannot be true. Not a bad place to start, I fully agree. But it is not a good place to end up. Many, if not most, systems in the real world exhibit complex and chaotic dynamics that leave linear cause and effect behind at the starting line. They are largely unpredictable, as the strategists who didn’t predict the Wall Street crash discovered. Many things, such as love, gravity, and time, are both very real and very important, but not at all clear. Some aspects of both the phenomenological world and the physical universe are not accidentally, but essentially, indeterminate. Light can be both a wave and a particle. There is a kind of rationality that is itself irrational. Pain and pleasure, adversity and fulfilment, arrogance and humility — these apparent opposites can coincide and interdepend.

Pinker claims that the humanities have largely themselves to blame for their predicament. I would agree. It is never a good policy to blame others for one’s misfortunes. One of the failings of the humanities has been a lack of conviction and a failure to stand up for what they represent. I also agree wholeheartedly that there was a lot of time lost in the wastelands of structuralism, in some (though by no means all) forms of postmodernism, and so forth. But in my view this was symptomatic, precisely, of this loss of nerve by the humanities in the face of science. They felt they needed their own mystique, guarded by technical language and involving arcane conceptual systems. They needed above all to be seen to be “hard,” something that Pinker sees as a hallmark of scientific endeavour. Of course it all depends what you mean by difficult. Sometimes it is retaining honesty, lucidity, and simplicity — seeing what is there — that is truly hard. And sometimes it is knowing when to abandon the accepted mode of approach — something that is harder for science than for the humanities, as I have suggested.

The problem in the humanities may also have to do with something else that Pinker touches on: they have “failed to define a progressive agenda,” as Pinker puts it. By comparison with the excited scientist in the dean’s office, the humanities professor sounds like a loser, because he wants respect for the way things have been done in the past. But it depends on how you look at education. Does it lie in discovering new pieces of information about the material world, or in transmitting a civilization? I would like to think both. That means examining the inexhaustibly rich experience and wisdom, the writings and the creations of others who came this way before us. That is not to look backward, but to guide our journey forward. Though these figures may not have been privy to the knowledge flowing from the scanning machines today, they may have, for that very reason, been able to see things that we cannot. It also requires inculcating a critical cast of mind that would question every certainty, without exception, including the assumptions that some scientists seem to take for granted. Only that combination of historical knowledge with skepticism can give us the required context in which to understand our own lives, predicaments, and purposes.

If Pinker is so keen on the humanities keeping up to the minute, why is it that the philosophers he chooses to follow are exclusively those who worked around 250 and 350 years ago? I have some welcome news for Pinker. Philosophy has, in fact, “defined a progressive agenda,” or, as we say, moved on. I recommend Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Levinas, Ricœur, and, first and foremost, Hegel — though a random reference to “dialectic” is among a list of Pinker’s boo-words (which includes “mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages”). These thinkers would complicate his faith in the unproblematic nature of describing and understanding the world.

On reflection, why rush into the 19th, or even the 20th century like this? If you want an example of a first-rate philosopher with an empirical bent, my money’s on Aristotle. He realized that there are indeed different “non-overlapping magisteria,” and that they require different epistemological approaches. According to Aristotle, different kinds of knowledge are appropriate to different contexts: the kind of knowledge that is exercised by an accountant is not the same as that exercised by a doctor, or a playwright, or a shipbuilder, and ills flow from confusing them. The truth of that perception is all around us in the universities. Science brings with it techne. These days it is increasingly short on phronesis (the subtle, embodied, practical wisdom that comes from combining learning with judgment born of experience, and that which used to be the goal of education in the Renaissance), and has little to contribute to sophia at all. That is where philosophy and the humanities come in.

There isn’t, in reality, the slightest chance of science sinking without trace — on the contrary, its ascendancy is unstoppable. But for the humanities, the writing is on the wall. One feels that Pinker could be more magnanimous in what must feel like victory — though from my perspective the loss of either partner is a disastrous loss for the other. And here science can give us valuable information. A generation of children is growing up who are reluctant to read a book through, or have perhaps actually lost the ability to sustain attention sufficiently to do so, that are dependent on a level of stimulation incompatible with the practice of scholarship, and according to some studies are less empathic than their equivalent age group a few decades ago. A worrying number of them now need to be taught how to read the human face, something only autistic children had to learn explicitly in the recent past. Many of them are ignorant of their own culture’s history and literature. They are immersed in a version of the world mediated through technology. They are unaware of what it is that they are missing.

To say there are limits to the sort of thing science can tell us does not make one an enemy of science. Sometimes it is worth listening to one’s friends — or one’s partner — when they sound a note of caution. One of the points that most differentiates the humanities and science in 2013 is the willingness to accept that there are likely to be things we cannot know. The public voice of science can often come across as — well, since this is a couples session, let’s be frank — overbearing and complacent. Although only a fool would deny the many achievements of science in making life safer and more comfortable for many of us, the only thing that can ultimately vindicate it is whether it makes us happier and wiser. The evidence suggests that we are not happier, in fact somewhat less so, and more prone to mental illness, than we used to be, that technology has helped to estrange us from the natural world, and altered, not always for the better, our relationship with one another, and our sense of continuity with our forebears and the historical past. Although it took hundreds of years of struggle — Pinker doesn’t like the word, but it was a struggle — to create our civilization, it might now take only a few seconds for a fool to destroy it.

Let us hope we are not being complacent. And let’s hope our children are wiser than we are. For such wisdom they will need science, no doubt; but they will need the humanities far more.


Iain McGilchrist is a British psychiatrist and the author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

LARB Contributor

Iain McGilchrist is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a former consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London. He has written widely on topics in medicine, psychiatry, philosophy, and the history of ideas.

"We have seen that thought probably originates in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere has most syntax and most of the lexicon, which makes it very much the controller of the 'word' in general. Coupled with its preference for classification, analysis and sequential thinking, this makes it very powerful in constructing an argument. By contrast it is hard for the right hemisphere to be heard at all: what it knows is too complex, hasn't the advantage of having been carved up into pieces that can be neatly strung together, and hasn't got a voice anyway."

— The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World


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