Monday, August 12, 2013

Crispin on Pinker-on-Science

Over at Bookslut:
Mary Midgley's Science and Poetry argues for a coming together of these two fields, without one trying to dominate the other. From the looks of the Pinker essay, he hasn't read it. Her main argument: we need to stop pretending like science can do the job of religion (which is not just hocus pocus self-delusion), or philosophy, or poetry, or a tremendous novel. And we should stop using one field as a method of entirely debunking the other.
Midgley: "The fear of science which has been expressed from these various angles -- the fear that science may act as 'a materialistic, anti-human force' -- is not, then, a gratuitous fantasy. It has been a natural response to certain powerful ideas which have long been associated with Western science because they were genuinely professed and linked with it by its early champions -- ideas which are still influential and have not yet been explicitly enough disowned. For instance, the association of the notion of science with crazy and irresponsible power-fantasies is still constantly illustrated by a mass of crude science fiction and also by a good deal of actual technology, notably in weaponry. But at the time of the Romantic Revival what discredited it most directly was its association with an attitude of fear and contempt for the imagination and for ordinary human feeling."
That Midgley quote is good. Read it again.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Addendum: Case in point, by Benjamin Y. Fong, from the NYTimes:
Why should we be worried about the advances of neuroscience, and in particular those of the Brain Initiative? On one level, its proponents are simply naïve about the corporate wolves with whom they run. George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard and one of the faces of the initiative, describes his sponsors, including Chevron, Procter & Gamble and Merck, as institutions that are “very pragmatic and practical about helping our world get better.” This willful ignorance regarding corporate influence is even more disturbing in the case of the Brain Initiative, which promises a very fine control over the seat of consciousness. With the help of this research, today’s neuro-marketing – marketing researched not with focus groups but M.R.I.s – may soon look quite primitive...The real trouble with the Brain Initiative is not philosophical but practical. In short, the instrumental approach to the treatment of physiological and psychological diseases tends to be at odds with the traditional ways in which human beings have addressed their problems: that is, by talking and working with one another to the end of greater personal self-realization and social harmony.


  1. "Talking and working with one another." . . From the Copenhagen Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture comes the experience that
    with all medical interventions, surgery, physical rehab etc people still need to tell their story to be well. Healing requires witness with another person.

  2. "fear and contempt for the imagination and for ordinary human feeling."

    I think I would take that slightly out of context and run with, it has a fear and contempt for other peoples imagination and emotion, its own internal imagination and use of narratives that strike the correct internal emotional note are vital to its is proper functioning. In this it is no different from any other human cultural group.

    I suspect that why concepts like the meme are so successful within science and don't work so well outside of the culture where a lot of it looks like nonsense as the emotional strains, stresses and relationship with knowledge are different and require a different emotional range.

    It is rather important that it finds a narrative that works beyond an in-group context if it wants to function successfully and it is rather vital that it does.

    Rather important it gets creative I think.

  3. Thanks for your replies, both of you.