Writing recently in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier gives a very worthy critique of “scientism,” while explaining what a humanist should and does think of science itself. This essay is interesting because it represents something of an “old left” point of view (which, ironically, has a lot in common with an “old right” point of view), managing to critique Steven Pinker, Richard Von Mises (Ludwig’s younger brother), and Jared Diamond. It’s mostly Mr. Pinker who comes in for the big drubbing, of course, and he does come out look rather worse for wear. Mr. Wieseltier makes a number of very helpful distinctions, showing how the authority of science can and should relate to other intellectual authorities, as well as the ways in which proponents of scientism obscure such facts in order to control all dialogue. He also points out, convincingly, that a few of the “scientizers” are simply poor readers.
One interesting sentence stood out to me, given our interests here at TCI. Mr. Wieseltier writes, “…most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare.” This is, as it is written, quite true, but also an area that needs special care. In order for a fact/value distinction to hold up, the value in question cannot have been grounded in a supposed fact now shown to be false. Further, if a value is not grounded in any fact, then it seems impossible to for such a “value” to move beyond a bias or taste. And yet for writers like Plato, Dante, and others, they most certainly did not think that was all they were doing.