Why it lingers, and what can we do about it
Steven Pinker tries to show why science is not our enemy in an interesting article published in The New Republic. The fact is that there is too much science-bashing in the humanities nowadays, this attitude being detrimental to the very social and political aims many professors of humanities profess to profess. Some of us take science, technology and logical thinking in general as our best bet towards fairer political and social institutions, better standards of living and the improvement of the human condition in general. We believe that a real understanding of ourselves—our societies and institutions—and of the universe will allow us to make informed decisions that have a better chance of improving our lives. Perhaps to the surprise of people immersed in science and the modern world, what many students learn when they go to college to study humanities is mainly a set of anti-scientific ideas based solely on opinions of famous elders — the authors, most of them dead, they learn to pay homage to, repeating their mantras against logic, rational discussion and the critical appraisal of ideas. What is going on?
Pinker provides revealing quotations from both the Left and the Right, showing how suspicious and outright hostile some people are towards science. And he tells us why he believes they are mistaken. What he does not tell us, though, is how to overcome the obscurantism prevalent in the humanities today and why is it that people find that sort of thing attractive. I will not tell you either, but I will essay a few ideas and impressions I have gathered along the years.
I came to realize that obscurantism is based on familiar ways of thinking and that is why perhaps it is so hard to overcome. I believe there are two basic components to those ways of thinking: the authority of the elders and word-magic. My counting them the way I do is obviously a cheat because those ways of thinking are vague enough to allow one to count differently. That said, I hope my counting them the way I do is illuminating. Anyway, I really want to air these ideas and this is as good an excuse as any.
In far too many cases, learning humanities is for students just a question of accepting opinions of famous older people. The professors themselves teach humanities that way because that was the way they were taught. It is not that those classes are empty of criticism, but rather that, first, there is only criticism by proxy—you are only allowed to criticise what those famous older people already criticise and more or less in the same way— and, secondly, those authors themselves are exempt of criticism. It should be obvious that this is a mockery of the critical stance. Being critical entails asking why should we accept the opinions of those older famous authors, figuring out if their opinions resist explicit criticism and comparing them with alternative views. Thus, author A may be very critical, sometimes brutally so, and dismissive of some ideas, lacking in cogent and diligent argument. Students, however, are not allowed to react towards A’s writings the way A reacted towards all the things that bothered A. Instead, the fundamental tenets of A are beyond criticism, along with A’s methods, however merely rhetorical they may be.
What makes students accept this seemingly incoherent stance (if A can criticise others, sometimes so carelessly, why is it that we cannot do the same?) is the hidden assumption that the elders have a privileged access to truth. Who are we to put them to the test? They alone travelled all the way to the top of the cognitive mountain and accessed profound, important insights we ourselves never would have reached.
This is nonsense, of course, but it is very powerful nonsense, and for two reasons. On the one hand, it is wrongly taken as an instance of the charitable interpretation any author deserves. To understand anyone’s thinking we have to be charitable, and only with a certain amount of analytical training can we avoid the slippery slope of accepting more and more not so plausible ideas until we end up accepting rather foolish ideas as if they were really profound.
Secondly, teaching is still too much about Heroes. This includes the way we teach history, science, philosophy and the arts: it is as if it was all about geniuses beyond the normal human reach. They alone penetrated the realms of Outstanding Achievements and are even Immortal — not in the real sense of the word, of course, but in a powerfully metaphorical and magically vague and obscure way. So culture, even sometimes scientific culture, goes too much towards a religious stance of admiring Heroes of Achievement. You can see it right in Pinker’s text when he talks about the Great Thinkers of the Enlightenment — and behold, they were scientists too, so we are allowed to follow their noble footsteps!
I am sorry to break it to you, but this is all baloney. Of course there are people much more talented for painting and music than others, people much more talented for empirical science than others, and so on. But everybody is human, everybody is quite limited and everybody makes very foolish mistakes (except perhaps me and God, obviously, and in that order). One of the most important factor in achieving success in the arts and sciences, as well as in the humanities, is… luck. The sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time with the right set of talents and the determination to carry it through. However, when we look back, we redact history and fail to see, firstly, the many talented people who were not lucky, and secondly the blunders and mistakes and sheer foolishness of the Past Heroes: we sanitise them so that they can be Past Heroes, Immortal and all. We forget they were all too human, just like the poor sods who were not fortunate enough to be Immortal Heroes—assuming that is fortunate, that is.
This is bad news because it shields mere random, unsubstantiated and outright foolish opinions from criticism, as long as they come from the Immortal Heroes. If an Immortal Hero’s opinion is that logic and science is a capitalist instrument of oppression, which sounds downright silly—I would worry much more about the way laws are designed, courts work and elections are bought—, then, just because that is the Immortal Hero’s opinion, it is seen as The Truth.
My worry is that this way of thinking is way too ingrained in our species, precluding the hope that we may educate a substantial number of people out of it. Believing that we should be deferential towards older, wiser people, is just too natural for us; as Somerset Maugham noted in his Cakes and Ale (1930),
from the earliest times the old have rubbed it into the young that they are wiser than they, and before the young had discovered what nonsense this was they were old too, and it profited them to carry on the imposture.
Literary wits aside, it makes evolutionary sense to trust the elders: they really are, in general, more experienced. Besides, most of what we know about the world and ourselves has to rely on testimony: we cannot know everything directly, even in our own area of expertise. The great leap forward regarding intellectual autonomy happens when we realise that any other human being, however wiser, is still a human being just like ourselves, and as such prone to error, illusion and cognitive blunders.
Religion is based on the authority of older people, most of them already dead, and it makes perfect sense precisely because we are naturally deferential towards older people, especially when they are talking about Very Serious Things Indeed. Why would they lie about such important matters? Unfortunately, a human being does not have to lie to say falsehoods or half-truths: being wrong is enough.
Magical thinking in general is a very natural way of proceeding: wishing intensely does have causal consequences because it motivates us. The ‘will to believe,’ to use William James’s celebrated phrase, is sometimes conducive to our survival or happiness because it is motivating. A student or a sportswoman is more likely to succeed if they believe that they will succeed. The problem is that this simple-minded recipe does not always work. I may will myself to succeed in a five-meter jump that is capital to survive a life-or-death situation, but I will never will myself to succeed in a ninety-meter jump.
Likewise, we tend to see patterns and this makes evolutionary sense because there really are patterns out there the understanding of which is of the essence to our survival. Trouble is, this makes us prone to see patterns where none exist, and prone to believe patterns are always meaningful and a path towards a deeper understanding of things.
Now, words, phrases, whole sentences and paragraphs make patterns all the time. Naming is itself almost magical and seems to give substance to anything we pretend to be thinking about. This is a terrible recipe for cognitive disaster. The famous last words of David Hume in his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) may be too harsh, not to mention incoherent, but are still of pristine value:
When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
Of course, Hume’s book itself would go straight to the flames; but the general point is that much of what human beings have thought and written about for millennia is just sophistry and illusion. It is like literary word play, only without the wits. Words, however, have such a power over us that it is easy to believe we are thinking about something profound, when really we are just uttering words we ourselves do not really understand. It is like magic. Saying that Man is a being-unto-death sounds important and profound and arcane; saying simply that people die, are terrified about it and try not to think about it, does not sound important at all. Yet, we are saying the same thing exactly. Much of what goes by as the wisdom of the ages is just word-magic like this: the talent to say really banal things with such important words that we fall into the trap of detecting some truth in those words (which is correct!) and at the same time the feel that some profound mystery is being only partially unravelled (which is bogus) to the Deserving Few.
Thus, when people in this arcane tradition ask the Three Big Questions—Who am I? Where do I come from? Where I am going to?—do not think for a moment that the sort of informed, scientific answer Steven Pinker has rightly in mind is of any interest. In fact, it is precisely what those people do not want to hear. They want an heroic-sounding phrase, a profound mystery being unravelled, a metaphor that makes them feel important and the centre of everything. They want spiritual, religious comfort — word-magic — and Pinker gives them facts and real understanding, complex arguments and empirically tested theories. It is like wanting to enjoy the rainbow with so many lyrical pronouncements and the geek comes in and dissects all the facts about it.
Obscurantism is thus, to my mind, not something we can easily overcome: it is too closely tied to our cognitive outlook. Respect for the elders and word-magic are too deeply entrenched to be overcome by an appeal to reasonableness and intellectual modesty. Hero-worship and word-magic are fixtures in way too many humanities studies, especially in their most anaemic incarnations. When a given subject is miles away from the standard intellectual practice of other humanities studies, like analytic philosophy, it is lamented upon precisely because it lacks word-magic.
I have not dwelt upon more pedestrian motivations to resist Pinker’s injunction towards a scientific study of human affairs, like an unwillingness to learn the new tricks of the trade in that moment in life when you seem to have finally mastered the old ones. I have not done that because those obstacles will most likely be overcome by the younger generations. My worry is that whatever we do — and we must do it nonetheless — obscurantism will always be with us. You have but to Google it, and you will find the most bizarre beliefs out there in the wild.
Welcome to the human race: it would be a wonderful thing, but for the people.