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Should the Humanities Embrace Scientism? My Postmodern Response to Pinker’s Patronizing “Plea”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Damn you, Gary Stix! I was just about to head off on a vacation when my old Scientific American buddy sent me an email command: “Attack, John!” Gary’s email linked to a New Republic essay by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker: “Science is Not Your Enemy,” snidely subtitled, “An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.”

Psychologist Steven Pinker says humanities scholars should be "delighted" by science's intrusion on their turf.

I like and respect Pinker. But a more accurate title for his condescending essay would have been, “Kicking the Humanities When They’re Down.”

He harangues humanities folks—whom I’ll call Humists–for resenting science’s increasing intrusion into their intellectual territory. According to Pinker, Humists should be “delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences,” which have become “indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”

Pinker faults Humists for accusing scientists of “scientism,” which could be defined as excessive trust in science. Attempting rhetorical jujitsu, Pinker suggests that science, because it is such a uniquely self-critical and successful generator of knowledge, deserves all our trust. Hence scientism is justified and we should all embrace it!

Now, before I knock Pinker further, let me acknowledge where our views overlap. First, we both believe in the attainability of truth and progress, and we agree that science is by far our most powerful means of understanding and improving our world.

I also get annoyed, like Pinker, when Humists dismiss science out of sheer ignorance. If you want to be taken seriously as an intellectual these days, you should engage with science, including pure and applied science, engineering, medicine and so on. And to engage with science, you should know something about it.

But Pinker’s idea of engagement seems to be kowtowing to science’s awesomeness. We already have too many prominent Humists serving as shills for science. Take, for example, the philosophers Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, who seem to think that MRI maps of brains are solving the mind-body problem.

Pinker himself grossly overvalues the contributions of fields such as evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics and neuroscience to our modern understanding of ourselves. And he has insulted the philosopher Thomas Nagel for daring to question whether science in its current form can account for the mysteries of life and consciousness.

So my advice to Humists is this: By all means engage with science, but engage with it critically, because science—contrary to what Pinker suggests–badly needs tough, informed criticism. As I said in a recent column, “it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever.”

Here’s a more specific suggestion: Just as Pinker proudly, perversely, embraces “scientism,” Humists should embrace the much-maligned term “postmodernism.” Pinker, of course, loathes postmodernism. “The humanities,” he writes, “have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.”

Pinker never seems to have understood postmodernism. Postmodern scholarship, like science itself, can be done well or badly, but its animating assumption is simple: All truth claims–whether scientific, religious or political—reflect the prejudices and desires of those who make them. Claims that become dominant in a culture often serve the interests of powerful groups.

Social Darwinism and eugenics are two especially egregious examples of pseudo-scientific ideologies that reflected the racism, sexism and classism of proponents. Pinker depicts Social Darwinism and eugenics as historical aberrations that had little or nothing to do with science–even though their central claims keep reappearing in modern scientific trappings.

Moreover, even a casual survey of modern science—and of this blog–reveals the degree to which science continues to serve the interests of powerful groups. The U.S. health care industry delivers lousy service at exorbitant prices, arguably because it is more concerned with profits than with patients. Modern psychiatry has become little more than a marketing branch of the pharmaceutical industry.

Neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence and other fields are increasingly dependent on military funding. Pinker himself has popularized the hypothesis that war is an instinct, rooted deeply in our evolutionary past, which civilization has helped us overcome. This notion serves as a convenient justification for modern U.S. militarism and imperialism.

Postmodernism is, in a sense, simply another expression of a truism of science journalism: If you want to understand modern debates about climate, energy, genetically modified food, economic equality or military policies, you should follow the money. Money certainly doesn’t explain everything—and just because a group is rich and powerful doesn’t mean that it’s corrupt–but it explains a lot.

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m really asking Humists to become more like science journalists, especially those who view science skeptically. Like the humanities, science journalism is struggling these days, and we need all the help we can get in providing critical evaluations of science. Together, Humists and science journalists can serve as science’s loyal opposition, pointing out how far science often falls short of the idealized portrayals peddled by flaks like Pinker.

Okay, now I’m going to forget about scientism and postmodernism and go for a run on a beach. And Gary, no more emails!

Postscript: To see what I mean by a “postmodern” critique of science, check out my next post: “Why ‘Optogenetic’ Methods for Manipulating Brains Don’t Light Me Up.”

Photo of Pinker speaking at TED Conference: http://www.ted.com.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. williamlweaver 8:44 am 08/14/2013

    “Attack, John!”
    “Damn You, Gary Stix!”
    “Kicking the Humanities When They’re Down.”
    “…resenting science’s increasing intrusion into their intellectual territory.”
    “…rhetorical jujitsu,”
    “…before I knock Picker further,”
    “Neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence and other fields are increasingly dependent on military funding.”
    “Together, Humists and science journalists can serve as science’s loyal opposition, pointing out how far science often falls short of the idealized portrayals peddles by flacks like Pinker.”

    Well Pinker got one thing right. We sure have a war on our hands.

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  2. 2. David Whitlock 9:41 am 08/14/2013

    Science is supposed to be its own “loyal opposition”. If you think you are a scientist and are not able, willing, or prepared to point out flaws in science, then you are doing it wrong.

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  3. 3. Markus12 10:59 am 08/14/2013

    This is, in fact, the debate of our time and a sharp polemic can be detrimental to everyone’s cause. I certainly sympathize with points from both sides: the human brain is involved in every instance of “humanist” art/thought/behavior and to elucidate this relationship the humanities must be made more amenable to the logical rigors of science; at the same time, science, in its current state, is ill-equipped to deal with the symbolic (i.e. context dependent), *meaningful* essence of human mental phenomena. An insightful middle ground is depicted in Liah Greenfeld’s “Mind, Modernity, Madness” (HUP link: http://bit.ly/1cNyb5Q ) with a theoretical foundation that reconciles both the scientific and humanist positions without degrading either.

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  4. 4. JPGumby 12:21 pm 08/14/2013

    I would suggest that one way that humists could benefit our understanding of things is to illuminate the distinction between facts and morality. Conflating these two seems especially common in evoluationary behavioralism, where most articles seem to want to say “we’re wired to do this, so it must be OK”. Linking “war is an instinct” with “justification for modern US militarism and imperialism” reflects exactly this kind of muddy thinking. The morality of an act is not dependent on what causes you to desire to do it (or not do it). By the same token, evidence of evolutionary advantages to cooperation says nothing about the morality of “cooperation” as compared to free market capitalism. A little logical clarity in these areas would be welcome.

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  5. 5. Noone 2:16 pm 08/14/2013

    Post-modernist critiques of science typically come from those who took four introductory classes in the sciences and then said (TO THEMSELVES) “too tough for me!”.

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  6. 6. rshoff 2:54 pm 08/14/2013

    Oh my, John. Two main thoughts if I can formulate them and remember them long enough to type. Of course, that entire sentence was needless… Anyway -

    “…and we agree that science is by far our most powerful means of understanding and improving our world.”

    I agree as well! With the key focus on ‘improving’, with the addition of ‘for mankind’. However, I’m not sure who would agree with me that science is not a concept that we create (manmade) but rather it is simply a truth that already exists waiting to be mined (by man).

    And how else does mankind come to agreement on prioritization of that scientific mining? Through the humanities, of course.

    Participating in the narrow definition of the sciences, albeit requiring intelligence and discipline, is a simpler task in some ways than embracing the gray area concepts presented by the humanities. The brilliant, truly exceptional ones (humans), can digest both disciplines and excel. In their absence, we must rely on sharing amongst each other.

    You said it well,

    “Together, Humists and science journalists can serve as science’s loyal opposition, pointing out how far science often falls short of the idealized portrayals…”

    Ok, I’ve forgotten my second ‘main thought’. Oh well.

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  7. 7. comfort 3:05 pm 08/14/2013

    Nice post. As a historian of science and medicine, I heartily agree that the sciences need healthy, constructive critique using analytical methods that are different from those of science. The tools of the historian–context, complexity, and contingency–are well adapted for cutting through hype and for following the money.

    I’d also point out that Pinker conflates scientism with acceptance of the principles of science. Scientism is in fact the belief that all problems can be explained or solved by the scientific method.

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  8. 8. rshoff 3:26 pm 08/14/2013

    @comfort – Ok, I’m hooked. What is the difference between ‘science’ and the ‘scientific method’? Please let me explain the basis of my question.

    With a narrow understanding of things, I have always believed that science exists. Kind of like math. It simply exists. We can use structured thought and intellectual tools to learn about the world around us and eventually manipulate it, but even if we don’t, the world around us doesn’t dissipate into nothingness. It still exists.

    Maybe I’m confusing the word ‘science’ with the actual world around us.

    I know it’s off topic, but that answer would help me better understand your comment.

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  9. 9. rogue medic 3:29 pm 08/14/2013

    Science without criticism is not science.

    By suggesting that criticism of bad science is opposition to science, you are demonstrating a lack of understanding of science.

    Too many of us remember only the first part of the Carl Schurz quote, “My country, right or wrong;” but forget (or ignore) the more important part – “if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

    Science does not do good in a politically correct atmosphere.

    We have examples in the various denialist movements (anti-vaccine propagandists who reject science, climate change denialists, GMO denialists, evolution denialists, . . . ). There is criticism that is motivated by an attempt to do good, but there is also criticism that is just to defend biases and ignorance. Defending biases and ignorance is just being politically correct. It is not science.

    Science places more value on correction of error than on protection of reputation.

    Valid criticism of science is participation in science.

    .

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 5:39 pm 08/14/2013

    Scientism is a new term to me. It sounds like fascism, communism, socialism, environmentalism and all of the other extremist isms that have failed over the centuries. The way people talk about it makes me think of Scientology which is a religion made up by an unsuccessful fiction author.

    The one thing I see that scientism and postmodernism have in common is that the names chosen are particularly stupid. Modern is now so you can’t have anything existing in fact rather than theory that is after the current (modern) time. Perhaps Postretrofuturism would make sense but even that is a stretch. To be blunt about scientism; there are no isms in real science. As soon as you embrace an ism you become a fanatic which is rather the opposite of science.

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  11. 11. rshoff 5:40 pm 08/14/2013

    @Rogue – I agree with you too! I’m finding that I agree with all of these discrete perspectives.

    Maybe the problem lies not in the the agreement of the truth and value of science but rather in humanity’s judgement of application and use of it.

    The human part gets grey for me… Perhaps frustrating but necessary because without humanity, for whose benefit do we study science?

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  12. 12. bucketofsquid 5:42 pm 08/14/2013

    An additional thought: Religion claims to have all of the answers which is demonstrably false. Science has always maintained that it can only answer what and how but not the underlying why. If you blur science and religion do you really practice either?

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  13. 13. rshoff 5:57 pm 08/14/2013

    Thank you Bucket! Finally I get it.

    I’ll shut up now….

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  14. 14. zeplinair 6:48 pm 08/14/2013

    Terms such as “scientism” are just ways of setting up strawmen and avoiding active engagement with the real pertinent topics of discussion. There may be people who have extreme ideas, but there is no widespread movement of “scientism”. Another sin of this author is adopting “humists”. This old tack of “I know you are, but what am I” attempts to put the enemy, in this case “scientism” on the same value footing as some imagined idea of how the enemy views you. However, just like some religious accuse atheism/agnosticism of also being a religion, this actually belittles one’s own position. In your failed attempt at humorless satire, you are plainly dragging your opponent DOWN to your level. This in no way improves your position. Also, I think that many of these scientists he accuses of not understanding post-modernism actually do understand post-modernism better than this fellow understands how they understand post-modernism. They may not be professional philosophers, but just as the secular are enraged at the worse excesses of religion that endangers people or society, especially when it injures or kills children, some of these scientists have encountered post-modernism as untempered ideology in intelligent academically credentialed people in positions of political power who shockingly should have better judgement. These scientist are drawing the line at real evidential harm and logical and rational ludicrousness, and the biases that these people actually do hold with their pretention of equinimity while patronizingly granting, as one would as benevolent guardian of innocent children, ethical passes to non-western entities and customs or to certain populations they also cast as powerless victims with no behavioral culpability (all culpability and ability to change the situation is typically ascribed unilaterally b&w to some dominant group associated with western customs and interests). These scientists are in no way attacking the humanities, and many take much enjoyment or even participate, but pointing out the excesses where it is clearly morally and ethically wrong.

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  15. 15. zeplinair 7:39 pm 08/14/2013

    Also blaming science for the excesses and justifications of politics and social forces, philosophy that are motivated to grab for justification for their positions or actions, regardless of whether what they are using is accurately represented or their self supporting implications are even derivable from the data (usually not), is like blaming a religious minority for their own persecution. The claims of the harassing group may have tantalizing pieces of accuracy that help convince the less knowledgable of their position, but the context of those facts are misrepresented or mistaken. The minority then bears the blame for the character of the misrepresentations that in reality do not reflect them at all. Likewise, these intellectually dubious blame of science itself for things such as social darwinism, needs to be laid at the foot of things such as politics, philosophy and rhetoric that are closer to the humanities than they are to science. And yes, there should be a critical eye, but less towards the ideal of science, but for breaks from that ideal, seeking the weaknesses of individual studies, especially when an author scientists fail to do so (it is explicitly their job to point out the weaknesses of their work, as opposed to most of the humanities), or the errors of interpretation of over enthusiastic promotion that usually occurs from forces that link science to those outside of science. The biggest sinners I have seen are science (or part-time science) journalists who are by the very business are rewarded more for hype than accuracy. I think the jaundiced eye should really be put there. Over hype and by individual scientists or teams tend to be taken down internally by competing scientists and teams all too happy to earn their own carrots by proving fools wrong-and they can be quite blunt and humiliating about it. I think such bluntness rubs some in the humanities wrong when they prefer to dance around a point and grant more to style than substance sometimes, which is important in much of the humanities. But this bluntness is the norm expected in science.

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  16. 16. marclevesque 7:50 pm 08/14/2013

    Yes! respectfully

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  17. 17. rshoff 12:50 pm 08/15/2013

    @marc – Yes, what? The humanities should embrace science, and science should embrace the humanities. I can be no other way simply because the our existence is the fulcrum of the two.

    Without us, there would be no ‘we’ to explore science and humanities would be nonexistent.

    Again, the best I can figure is humanities is about the human social species. It’s how we agree or disagree. Prioritize.

    Science just ‘is’. We can explore it and apply our learning to our own lives -or not. It’s up to us.

    Can we change science based on our humanities? No, I think not. But we can use it to change what we explore and how we apply our knowledge.

    Other than that, I think the concepts between ‘scientism’ and ‘humist’ are getting too esoteric and not very practical.

    I like John’s articles. He doesn’t speak in absolutes and asks us to consider things. Although he does speak out against those that speak in absolutes.

    But I’m no expert on anything. So, mostly, I appreciate being able to have access to all of this information.

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  18. 18. rshoff 12:51 pm 08/15/2013

    correction: “IT” can be not other way…..

    and any others.

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  19. 19. jabailo 12:43 am 08/16/2013

    Do you think we’ll ever get back to the days when people stop capitalizing Science (or worst, using a definite article, The Science).

    Really, I am not a fan of Aggregate Science. The kind of research paper by the pound that Al Gore popularized. Every fact has to stand for itself. Every paper can be subject to critical analysis. Every theory or hypothesis has to stand on its own.

    What we see with the Aggregators is more like turning science into a secret society where you’re either for us — or agin’ us!

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  20. 20. rshoff 3:51 am 08/16/2013

    I see where this is all going. Science as a religion. Of course it’s not. Not really. Science is simply the study of the world around us. What they do with that knowledge may lead to a religion of sorts….

    Science (noun) the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

    Although I don’t completely agree with zepelin above, he has very valid points that I can support.

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  21. 21. rshoff 4:19 am 08/16/2013

    Ah-ha. Take the argument over nuclear technology. Nuclear technology is in the realm of science. But we have much disagreement amongst us as to whether it ultimately benefits humankind. And if so, at what expense to the planet (you can see my bias)?

    Science = Explore and develop nuclear technology
    Humanities = Society’s value placed on exploring and developing nuclear technology.

    Is it moral to research and implement technologies that cause harm? What experience does our society offer (e.g. political, moral, historical, philosophical, artistic, etc) to gain a better understanding of whether to implement that avenue (nuclear technology) of science?

    How about the efforts we put into human cloning, implanting human stem cells into lab animals (kinda like having sex with a rat -yuck)? Can’t having a foot in humanities help us determine whether or not to pursue based on human benefit to moral cost analysis?

    I’m not arguing these two points. I’m just trying to come up with examples that I know are already divisive.

    Furthermore, science is about as finite as the universe (not very). We cannot pursue all pathways of science because it’s not possible. We don’t have enough resources (human or otherwise) or time. So why don’t we use humanities (that thing that we express together as human animals) to help guide us to the most beneficial science research and development?

    Then when we do pursue scientific research and development, do it honestly and unhindered by manmade laws and obstacles (e.g., religion, ignorance, mythology, etc).

    So much for shutting up, but this topic got me going….

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  22. 22. RBentley 8:56 am 08/16/2013

    What a ridiculous article. When science is done well, there are numerous checks and balances in place to take care of the very well known ability of humans to fool themselves. Feynman’s mantra “if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong” is not just a soundbite; it’s the underlying philosophy that goes behind triple, quadruple, and pentuple checking results. Not just by you, but by others who might want to see your idea fail.

    Eugenics was most certainly an aberration, because it wasn’t a conclusion arrived at by objective critical analysis. Cursory analysis coupled with prejudice isn’t good science; and perhaps we have the source of this author’s hissy fit.

    You can easily point out when someone is doing bad science because there are rules about what constitutes such a thing; there aren’t however such clear cut rules about postmodernist thought.

    This is why you can write an essay that says literally nothing, fill it with blatant falsehoods and nonsensical statements, and get it published by a reputable postmodernist journal. This actually happened ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair ). If it sounds plausible and uses “the right words”, it can pass for postmodernism.

    You can’t just make anything up and get it published in a science journal (much to the chagrin of peddlers of pseudo-science); it would be rejected for all of the well established rules for rejecting it.

    The problem that many people suffer from in the humanities is that a great deal of what might be considered “good” or “right” under any given circumstance can get there through good argument. Argument can potentially mean nothing in science…make as convincing a case as you want; in fact make your case so powerful that this is what everyone is expecting; but if it disagrees with experiment – it’s wrong.

    Quantum physics is a prime example of something many people argued (quite convincingly) that it’s just too stupid/weird to actually be true. Results of experiments (in some cases , being able to replicate thought experiments designed to show how ridiculous quantum theory was) have overwhelmingly confirmed quantum theory to be true.

    Because we’re at a point now in our lives where meaningful discussion can be had over the physical processes behind thought, the humanities are going to have to adapt or become a joke. There are areas of overlap between the topics they can be discussing, and if they try to “fight” science with as convincing an argument as they can…

    Science will be able to say “Well – don’t believe my argument, believe my data, and believe the results of this experiment that too could replicate.”

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  23. 23. RamezNaam 12:41 pm 08/16/2013

    Interesting.

    I’m much more on Pinker’s side of this than Horgan’s.

    John Horgan – I think you’re a great science journalist in general, but this is one area where I perceive you as having an axe to grind. And I think your analysis is off the mark in a few of these areas.

    AI, neuroscience, and psychology being increasingly dependent on military funding? Really? Consumer technology companies like Google and Microsoft fund most real AI work at this point.

    War-as-instinct justifying US militarism? I don’t recall ever seeing that argument made. Pinker certainly believes that war is an instinct, and also believes that more advanced civilizations tamp down on that instinct. The whole point of _Better Angels_ is the argue that despite war being an instinct, humanity has *overcome* that instinct through the civilizing process, and is continuing to.

    US health care industry being so bad because it’s so profit driven? I don’t see it this way at all – the real problem is that costs are high because the people choosing the service (doctor and patient) are not the same as the ones paying for the service (everyone in the insurance pool).

    I don’t think Pinker’s essay was perfect. But I think the critique of it and what it implies is overboard.

    Best,
    Ramez Naam

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  24. 24. rshoff 2:47 pm 08/16/2013

    …people choosing the service (doctor and patient) ….

    Rameez – Indeed, patients do NOT choose the service. And doctors are limited by provider contracts. Both are limited by insurance contracts.

    I see what you’re saying RBently, but we do science for humanity. We do not do science for the sake of doing science. We are human and we cannot separate our exploration of science from that sad fact. It is a fact. As humans, we will only see the world through the tiniest of pin holes anyway. So don’t get too caught up in the purity of science. Our purview is infinitesimal no matter how many generations of learned scientists we humans host.

    I value and trust science. Very much so. I loathe mythology and religion. But I support the notion that science cannot be separated from humanity in general (and should embrace the humanities).

    Perhaps the scientists themselves bring humanities to the table by virtue of being a human organism themselves. But I think you’re all on different pages running in different directions, wasting money left and right, and pay no heed to how some of these research projects will end up being used. Yes, eugenics is one of them.

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  25. 25. Helgav 1:17 pm 08/17/2013

    Funny. I never thought of Steven Pinker as religious. I never would have thought it of Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris, and especially not of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. But Steven’s latest essay has finally provided an epiphany. They all share a faith. It is not a faith based in superstition or any conventional religion. It is not even, as might at first appear, a faith in “science”.

    No, it is a touching but misplaced faith, a faith that elevates the industrial economic system and the “civilization” that goes with it, into the mainstream of human progress as a species.

    None of them has understood that our current state of “civilization” might well turn out to be a temporary aberration.

    For all I know, most of you actually share this faith, no matter what other religious or other supernatural ideas you have.

    I would like to invite everyone to consider the possibility that the material prosperity we see in the industrialized world today is only being maintained by means of a process destructive to the nonrenewable resources, the renewable resources, and the living ecosystem of the entire planet. I am only asking this of you because I think the situation might be worse than most of you realize, and the peril imminent.

    Economic growth is only possible when population growth meets a large and relatively cheap resource base. That was the case for the past three centuries due to the “discovery” of whole continents, rapidly depopulated by an accident of history that left them very vulnerable to Eurasian viruses evolved since the Neolithic revolution. The consequent colonization of North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand unleashed a veritable tsunami of innovation in transportation and capital investment in businesses to organize the harvesting of the resource bonanza that this created.

    It was a heady time for making prodigious amounts of money off a veritable mountain of resources. And it created lots of jobs and businesses. It fuelled an exponential rise in European populations, and this spilled outward to colonize the world, filling newly created jobs everywhere. William Catton called this “the Age of Exuberance”, and it was. It created the British Empire, and then, the American “century”. It also underwrote the costs of an unprecedented explosion of education, the “arts”, medicine, sanitation, farming, scientific discovery, criminal activity, socio-economic stratification, and technological innovation. Along with this, came unprecedented levels of wage employment. It created the biggest middle class (people with jobs good enough to live without access to land) the world has ever seen.

    This trend got a tremendous booster shot of energy in the form of oil and coal. As fossil fuel use accelerated, our global industrial civilization created the biggest urban centres in the history of the world.

    Improvements in sanitation, medical care, and nutrition, as well as ideas about human rights and democracy, spread and it seemed that it was not just an age of exuberance but also and age of rising expectations and progress.

    It also set off a flood of investment and development assistance to bring the “benefits of western know how” to the rest of the world, including those places where various businesses were still busy extracting various resources.

    Many people, like Steven, will put science at the forefront of this process. They will imply, as he has in his essay, that all this “progress” was all made possible by science: the technology, businesses, people’s ingenuity – all of which “create jobs”.

    This is a mistaken notion. A country’s resources (or, should I say, any resources it can control) create jobs, by making it possible for some people to live by harvesting resources of timber, metals, minerals, oil, coal, furs, fish, potash, water, food and drugs (grown by mining the fertility of soil or made from petrochemicals), animals (grown by consuming the energy captured in plants from sunshine), and so on. (Of course human labour is also a resource, of sorts, and this is especially true when it is cheap and yet skilled, but it is a resource of the same order as technology, meaning, it cannot be “put to work” without raw material resources to work with.)

    Others can live off the profits from transporting resources to their “markets”, and manufacturers and their employees by processing these resources into “products” for distribution to “consumers”, while still others can live from the proceeds of servicing the shops such goods are sold in … it is a long chain of skimming that results in the eventual costs to the consumer… but it begins with RESOURCES. It is the resources that set the whole chain in motion. all the secondary sources of jobs, in education, infrastructure creation and maintenance, the conduct of basic and applied research, scholarly pursuits, criminal activity, and entertainment sectors, are all spun out from the resource transformation process at the heart of economic activity.

    Thus it was that during the last three hundred years, at ever greater levels of energy use, the industrial civilization and the global economy altered the way most people lived, worked, and thought. It also set in motion a profound demographic transformation.

    With rising life expectancy, there was a short surge of population growth in the early industrial period. But even as birth rates started to fall along with child mortality, and women entered the labour force in industrialized nations, populations elsewhere around the globe entered an unprecedented orgy of exponential growth.

    Some observers of the human condition issued warnings about the potential for overshoot of carrying capacity, beginning with Thomas Malthus and more recently Albert Bartlett, but during an age of continual growth and “progress”, all such gloomy prognostications were not just ignored, they were ridiculed.

    The “growth” paradigm is currently considered unassailable: no politician would be elected without at least paying lip service to it. It is of course a cultural paradigm, perhaps the key paradigm in the current global economic culture. Economic growth, continued social “progress”, and science, are the holy trinity of faith. It is at this intellectual placeholder we find worshipful congregations of new atheists, who fail to notice that they are standing shoulder to shoulder with people from many other religions.

    Some have faith that if our coal or iron or fresh water runs low, we can lasso a passing asteroid and mine it for these these. Some have faith in a New Jerusalem, when God will set everything to rights. Some have faith in the invisible hand of the market. Some have high hopes for fusion reactors or some other source of even freer energy, to keep all our civilization’s plates spinning in the air forever and ever, amen.

    News flash. The resources, that underwrote the industrial revolution and everything we now are so pleased to consider our global civilization, are getting more and more expensive to extract, or are simply being degraded at alarming rates.

    This includes minerals and rare earth materials, marine life, timber, soil, fresh water, coal, gas, and oil. The whole world economy is essentially mucking about the cratered pit, which is all that is left of that resource mountain we started with 300 years ago. Sure, there are still small piles of stuff left here and there, and there is some confusion going on, because some of the resources are renewable piles, created by the life processes of the planet’s ecosystem, but these are being scooped up too fast and too thoroughly to keep up with the voracious demands of the “supply chains” feeding them into the maw of a still growing human population and its civilization. And the global population is still rising by some 300,000,000 people every year.

    The most critical of the nonrenewable resources, in terms of impact on the current economy, is oil. Marion King Hubbert’s classic paper, modelling the discovery and production data of oil fields, is one of the clearest exemplars in petroleum geology. In the 1950′s he correctly predicted that oil production in the USA would peak in the early1970′s. He also, at some cost to his career as I understand it, projected his calculations to world oil production and suggested world oil production would start to decline shortly after the turn of the century. He appears to have been right about that too, since most observers now believe the world peaked in the middle of the past decade.

    I live a few hundred miles south of Alberta’s tar sands, and there is furious activity up there, none of which would be happening if there were lots of untapped light sweet crude to drill for. I see oil derricks working away everywhere I go on this province, and yet I know that Alberta produces less than 3% of the estimated 80-85 Million barrels of oil the world consumes DAILY. Everything going on in the oil industry today indicates desperation, from Obama’s decision to permit drilling in one of the last great wildlife reserves in the United States, the resumption of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico despite another recent spill, the desperate efforts to build some kind of continental tar-sand pipeline thick enough to cater to the Asian market, and this potentially disastrous “Fracking” boom. It may still be below the radar of most of the general public, but governments everywhere are aware of the most recent forecasts of the IEA. When declines in our various oil fields reach the point when more energy must be expended than we get out of the ground, oilfield jobs will disappear, along with the oil companies that currently “produce” oil and “create” oilfield jobs.

    The problem is, ultimately, resource depletion and population overshoot, not idiotic ideologies, greed, or evil. And unless we admit that truth, is there any point in hoping for a better tomorrow? Somehow, we humans are going to have to summon all the hope and courage we can muster to create a future world our descendants can survive in. Maybe we can begin by telling our children the truth, which means blowing that myth of infinite growth and progress out of the water, publicly, and often, every chance we get.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Chryses 5:41 am 08/19/2013

    Helgav (25),

    Some years ago, the Club of Rome also predicted the end of life as we know it.
    They too were wrong.
    Wildly wrong.

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  27. 27. rshoff 12:33 pm 08/19/2013

    “…“civilization” might well turn out to be a temporary aberration.”

    It is. Furthermore, we go through resources the way yeast thrives in a petri dish. We have opposable thumbs and developed frontal lobes so we can feel superior to yeast and call our version of resource consumption an ‘economy’.

    There is no ‘solution’. There needs to be no ‘solution’. We do not need to exist. We are not the cause of the laws of the universe, we are only observers through science (to an extent).

    We will eat through our resources, and we will either find more or die off like yeast in an empty petri dish.

    To understand that this is not ‘the end’, we would need to step out of our humanity and view ourselves the way we view yeast. Just another clump of organized matter that thrives by consumption.

    So back to the concept that within the human system, intelligence is an attribute of humans that permits us to observe the world around us outside of our inherited five senses -we call that observation and its resultant knowledge ‘science’. As humans, within the human system, we can benefit from science using the ‘humanities’ as an important part of expressing our learnings and determining what to do with them -while we are still around. My view of the humanities is that they are a manifestation of the social instinct within our species. Without that instinct, we could not work together to build civilization. Humanities can put us together on the ‘same page’ in a non oppressive way. Religion and government can be an actively oppressive way to enforce us onto the same page, where the humanities is a way to follow by agreement and example.

    In the meantime, we should have some fun.

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  28. 28. rkipling 10:04 pm 08/19/2013

    rshoff,

    Do not dispare. Won’t it be interesting to see how this all turns out? We are a part of the universe that became conscious. We haven’t been awake that long. This is the process.

    Don’t worry, Be happy.

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  29. 29. rshoff 12:59 pm 08/20/2013

    Thanks rkipling! Your optimism is moving. Unfortunately, I won’t get to see how it all turns out. I don’t think humanity will either. We’ll never understand the ‘why’ of things. That saddens me. But that’s ok for the universe.

    As far as the future. I think all probabilities of every physical ‘law’ will be played out. So all futures will have been true. All pasts will have happened. So let’s just pick the one we want to imagine.

    The only thing that mystifies me at the moment is the question as to whether life in the universe can affect those laws. Hmmm.

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  30. 30. rkipling 3:25 pm 08/20/2013

    rrshoff,

    If you haven’t yet, read Asinov’s The Last Question.

    Link to this
  31. 31. Helgav 1:01 pm 08/21/2013

    Like Steven Pinker, and the author of this essay, far too many people today, scientists and even the most “post-modern” humanist alike, have not actually assimilated the only valuable lesson of the PM message – you know, the one about people’s perceptions being strongly influenced by their own culture and class?

    The ideological myth of “progress” is one of the worst of the blind spots. It is why people like Richard Dawkins are more willing to believe that humans “in a state of nature” really are violent savages. It is why Pinker’s “Better Angels…” sells. It is why Dennett can popularize the idea of “memes” INFECTING THE MIND like viruses, and thumb his nose at the people who have actually studied how cultures work and change. If only this were true, all we need is a techno-fix that will vaccinate future “better” humans against all kinds of stupid ideas.

    Ahem.

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  32. 32. JJohan 4:44 pm 08/22/2013

    “All truth claims–whether scientific, religious or political—reflect the prejudices and desires of those who make them.” All truth claims? What prejudices and desires of Einstein are reflected in the general theory of relativity? Or Newton and his physics? Of course I could go on and on. The great thing about science (and I mean actual science, in the precise meaning of the word) is that it does *not* reflect prejudices and desires. It’s about the only hope we humans have of not drowning in our own stupidities.

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  33. 33. rshoff 8:47 pm 08/22/2013

    @jjohan – Your comment fascinated me. And I agree with its basis in ethics and analytical thought. But I wonder if it might be that Einstein’s prejudices (bias) guided him in the thought processes that allowed him to approach concepts in physics. While we have to keep our biases in check, the idea of ‘no’ bias would leave us lost in an unstructured and confusing world where everything has equal merit! How we feel about up and down is even a bias. Doesn’t mean that up isn’t up and down isn’t down. But our bias leads us to different assumptions about the two. And when tested, we can probably prove a lot of those assumptions.

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  34. 34. rshoff 12:44 pm 08/23/2013

    JJohan- ….Or disprove the assumptions. Biases are not bad things, they are just a reference point. The problem occurs when we start using our bias as guidance or truths. We can’t be guided by our biases, but we can reference our position based on them.

    For example, we use the magnetic poles as a geographic reference. We also know that only applies on earth! The Mars Rover would have quite a problem if we used earths magnetic poles as geographic reference when sending it instructions on it’s next turn.

    Similarly, I believe that bias is a reference point for humans as we busy ourselves with stuff humans do. Even research and science. But we must be able to understand when each bias is a useful reference and when each is not. Furthermore, we must make sure they are being used only as reference points and not as road maps!

    Having said that, I do wonder sometimes if I’m suffering from a form of synesthesia where I live in a world -even the world of thought- of emotions (the world is composed of emotion) as well as three dimensional objects of varying shapes, size, and opacity (not color) in three dimensional space where the objects are linked to each other with many connections. Those connections have varying strength, weight, solidity, all measured in ‘feelings’…..

    But I think all human brains do this. We must have reference points, and is no such thing as absolute reference points.

    Or maybe I’m just plain stupid. But even then it’s good to help define the boundaries, even the boundaries of stupid.

    Anyway, that’s where I was coming from.

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  35. 35. rshoff 12:54 pm 08/23/2013

    Oh, and I don’t see those shapes and connections… I ‘feel’ them -not with my hands, but inside. They are internalized somehow.

    I don’t understand a lot, but when I do, I ‘feel’ it from the front, back, top, bottom, inside, outside, and how it’s linked to other things. That’s when I feel good. Until I internalize things to that extent, I find them confusing in a perplexing way. That feels bad.

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  36. 36. rkipling 12:19 am 08/24/2013

    rshoff,

    Understand that I mean nothing negative by this. Please be careful with whatever you have there. Good trips can turn bad.

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  37. 37. Dr. Strangelove 5:54 am 08/24/2013

    “What prejudices and desires of Einstein are reflected in the general theory of relativity? Or Newton and his physics?”

    No political or social prejudices. For physicists in general, maybe a prejudice or a (false?) belief that everything can be reduced to mathematics. Or their theories are reality itself rather than representations of reality. As Stephen Hawking said theories exist only in the mind. Henry Mintzberg said all theories are wrong but some are useful. Arthur Eddington suggested that perhaps theories are just a consistent illusion. It doesn’t matter. In science, what’s important is consistency.

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  38. 38. rshoff 1:17 pm 08/24/2013

    rkipling – Thanks for the advice. Nope, it’s all a natural state. Unfortunately. But thanks for not criticizing. So I imagine it all becomes clear now.

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  39. 39. rshoff 1:20 pm 08/24/2013

    Dr Strangelove. Yes, it can all be reduced to mathematics. But where does the human mind begin. It must have a starting place, references, and a direction. That, in my mind, is bias of a sorts.

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  40. 40. Dr. Strangelove 9:41 pm 08/24/2013

    You have a bias for mathematics. Can you write an equation that describes the evolution of living things or the unfolding of world history? Physicists cannot even predict the behavior of an electron. They can only describe it statistically in aggregate a large collection of particles. Besides, mathematics itself as basic as arithmetic has its own limitation as Gödel expounded on the Incompleteness theorem. The so-called mathematical certainty is uncertain.

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  41. 41. ThatsJustDandy 1:53 pm 08/28/2013

    Dr Strangelove, I’m compelled to respond, but will be retiring from SA comments. You are correct in assuming that rshoff does have a bias for math and science. But he hasn’t carved himself out of his observation that everyone has bias. His point was that that bias, subtle or overt, should be recognized and then used as only a reference point in approach and navigation of observation and not as a conclusion. Some people may call that reference point something like ‘inspiration’.

    The point about bias was in response to the comment referencing Einstein. The overall point was intended to support an argument for why the humanities should be married to the sciences to the extent of prioritizing what we (humans) study, why we study it, and what we can do with the conclusions. (i.e., to benefit humanity as well as other life forms). There another example of bias. I’m biased toward life.

    Science can benefit by drawing from the humanities, however, I personally draw the line at the humanities dictating to science. I hope that comment is not too vague without examples.

    “Can you write an equation that describes the evolution of living things or the unfolding of world history?”

    In answer to that question, one would assume that by calculating probabilities based on greatly detailed information of every instance, one would be able to mathematically represent evolution and world history. Past, present, and future. What math skills are required to work with those probabilities? I don’t know, as I’m neither a mathematician nor a physicist.

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  42. 42. ThatsJustDandy 2:08 pm 08/28/2013

    And the humanities should integrate and incorporate solid high level understandings of scientific truths. But the mechanism for that is more complicated. It is a process that should happen naturally as a result of exposure to new information and truth. At the point an entity under the umbrella of ‘The Humanities” (e.g. religion, government) fails to incorporate or even acknowledge new understandings, a socially driven restructuring of that entity should be considered (I’m not talking wars here, I’m talking about the power of social influence and socially granted leadership). Whether it be a religion, foreign government, or the school board.

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