What is Scientism, And Why Is It Bad?

The charge of scientism is both unreflectively made and unreflectively dismissed; wielded by cranks and bores and brushed off by the smug and the superficial. Given this, its meaning, and its significance, is unclear. Some believe, indeed, that it has none. Steven Pinker says it is “more of a boo word than a label for a coherent doctrine”. Daniel Dennett says it is “an all-purpose, wild card smear”.

One can readily accept that foes of scientism have sometimes resembled cranky farmers, standing in their fields and screaming, “Get off my land!” Nonetheless, the charge is meaningful, and often necessary.

Pinker was mistaken in suggesting that there is no doctrine that could be called scientism. Some philosophers, indeed, have accepted the term. In its substantive form, scientism is a radical kind of verificationism, the idea that meaningful statements must be verifiable through scientific methods. Metaphysical, moral and aesthetic statements, then, are meaningless on anything but an emotional level. Some are unashamedly convinced that this is true. Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist Guide to Reality was a book-length argument for scientism that promoted what he called “nice nihilism”. Somehow the perspective never quite caught on.

Different arguments can be levelled against the idea. Raymond Tallis, the philosopher and neuroscientist, rejects the modern tendency to spurn metaphysics. “Fundamental physics,” he has claimed, “Is in a metaphysical mess and needs help.” As an example he offers “recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on…the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings at the moment of creation.” To be sure, such a view has opponents – like James Ladyman and other advocates of naturalized metaphysics – but the very argument illuminates the relevance of philosophy and not just the empirical sciences.

The most egregious forms of scientism, though, are superficial and unsystematic: not embracing Rosenberg’s reductionism wholesale but extending the proper limits of the natural sciences by inflating the value of quantifiability.

Take Sam Harris’ attempt to solve the is/ought dilemma, which smuggles ethical assumptions into what he claims is a scientific argument. He is right, of course, that science can help us to determine what is good, by, for example, telling us what is most probable to maximise pleasure and minimise harm. The “is” part is not entirely unconnected from the “ought” part. Yet Harris is more tendentious when he tries to bridge the gap, writing, in The Moral Landscape:

To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is exactly like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. We need not enter either of these philosophical cul-de-sacs.

This is a strange comparison. What is at issue in Harris’ unscientific alternative universe is not the epistemological value of science but the extent to which men value epistemology. If we made a collective judgement that the sky was green it would remain blue nonetheless. If people did not value the well-being of conscious creatures, though, what scientific basis would it have as a moral criterion?

Granted, people tend to care about their own well-being, though even here conceptions of “well-being” are contentious. There are some grounds for agreement – no one would suggest it might enhance well-being to be burned alive – but elsewhere things are murkier. Naive utilitarianism has no defence against coercive wireheading.

Even trickier for Harris is the difficulty (I would say impossibility) of making a scientific case for universalism. Even if one cares about one’s own well-being, and the well-being of one’s friends and family, one might not care about the lives of strangers. Harris writes:

...to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do…

I am not at all convinced that saying we out to treat children with kindness is identical to saying everyone will tend to be better off if we do. Beneath the modern world, which is so good for many of us, are the bones of millions of starved, neglected, overworked or outright murdered children. No believer in natural selection could be confident we would be better off if those kids had received more kindness.

More significantly, Harris overlooks the question of how kind men and women are and should be towards different children. Mums and dads prioritise their childrens’ interests over those other people. One cannot scientifically determine the extent to which we should restrain natural human favouritism.

“Resisters to scientific thinking,” Steven Pinker has observed, often object that some things cannot be quantified”:

Yet unless they are willing to speak of issues that are only black and white and to foreswear using the words more, less, better and worse (and for that matter the suffix -er), they are making claims that are inherently quantifiable. 

As I have written, “better” and “worse” are not always quantifiable concepts. Nor are “uglier” and “more beautiful”. Yes, our aesthetic ideas, to some extent, are products of our evolution. Yet one could not make a solely scientific argument for Turner’s paintings being more beautiful than Thomas Kinkade’s. Thank God! What could reduce the value of a work of art more savagely than the official application of a unit of aesthetic worth? The shiver that ascends one’s spine in the presence of beauty would shrink before the presentation of scientific data.

Science alone cannot determine what is valuable, nor can it be the sole guide of rational decision-making. In his book Rationalism in Politics, Michael Oakeshott observed that knowing recipes and knowing how to cook are very different things. No sensible person would deny the value of systematic evidence in politics. Yet a danger of scientism is that it encourages analysis abstracted from experience; obscuring the complexities of practical wisdom. An example of this dangerous tendency was provided by the academic architects of the Vietnam War, who, David Halberstram suggested in his book The Best and the Brightest, created “brilliant policies that defied common sense”.

The boorish yet brilliant Nassim Nicolas Taleb has written of the randomness and risk that makes a scientific comprehension of all the variables of political calculuses difficult if not impossible. This does not make science irrelevant but illuminates the needs for robustness and restraint to protect us against hubris.

To criticise scientism is not to criticise science. One is able to acknowledge its explanatory power without being forced to accept its predominance.

Nonetheless, people who value philosophical, historical and artistic concepts should not be afraid to maintain their relevance. In his essay “The Two Cultures” CP Snow observed the separation of the sciences and the humanities. I hope there can be a “third culture”, which some aspire to build, but its existence depends on two collaborators meeting and not one culture imagining itself as a conquering hero.

Posted in Rationalism, Scepticism, Science | 3 Comments

Beauty And Despair In The Poems Of Philip Larkin…

The English poet Philip Larkin died thirty-two years ago but was perhaps England’s last truly popular poet.

It is not surprising that he is remembered. His poems are accessible, in style and in theme, compared to his modern successors. They are also very English: romantically meditative and equivocal yet with bouts of scorn, cynicism and black comedy. They inspire both catharsis and consolation.

That Larkin endured such an unattractive life, holed up in the bleakest outposts of the English provinces to wallow in loveless affairs, pornography and alcoholism, has made some commentators disapprove of his poems. I think it makes them more remarkable. He saved his sensitivity, one feels, for his art.

The occasional nature of his poetic instinct is evident in his poems, which often begin with banal, if elegant, observations. In “Church Going” and “An Arundel Tomb” the poet visits churches and takes in their “matting, seats, and stone”. He feels “awkward reverence” yet remains unstirred. In the former he reflects “the place was not worth stopping for” while in the latter he is tempted to dismiss effigies of an earl and countess as exhibiting the “plainness of the pre-baroque”. Yet his tone subty shifts. In “An Arundel Tomb” Larkin observes that the earl and countess are holding hands and suggests that this proves:

Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

In “Church Going” Larkin asks himself what will become of such churches when they “fall completely out of use” and reflects that he stands “a serious house on serious earth”, where:

…someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Some nonbelievers describe themselves as “cultural Christians”. This is often superficial, such as in the case of Richard Dawkins, who defined it as appreciating Christmas carols. Larkin’s reference to a “hunger…to be more serious”, presumably unassauged by material concerns, is infinitely more profound.

As moving as it is, one feels the thought should be pursued. What does it mean to be serious? How can the dead advise? Perhaps this is unfair to ask of Larkin, who, blessed with an extraordinary transcendental sense, made no great claims for his transcendental substance. Drifting around the church – signing the book and donating a sixpence – he admits to often being “at a loss like this/Wondering what to look for”.

Even in his purest moments of sublime insight Larkin suppresses the encroachment of the mystical. The “almost-instinct” is almost true, and it is “someone”, not himself, who seeks wisdom in the church. Well, fair enough. He was a staunch materialist and to indulge his sentiments would have struck him as a cop-out. He had no wish to elide emotional almost truths with empirical actual truths. Yet there is an unreflective cynicism in his dismissal of faith, in “Aubade”, as a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die”. He had too much imagination to be so reductive.

Larkin was a constitutional conservative, not in the sense of admiring Franklin and Hamilton but in the sense of being nostalgic, sceptical and bilious. The latter tendency emerged in his acerbic doggerel about the “so-called working class” (“I want to see them starving”) but the former was sincere and sentimental. He pined for what he never had and never quite believed in: the naive pre-war England of “MCMXIV”; the doomed wildlife of “Going, Going” and potential domestic bliss in “Home is so Sad”, which mourns, “A joyous shot at how things ought to be/Long fallen wide”.

These inclinations often soured into the nihilism of “Days” or “This Be The Verse”. In the latter, the injunction to “get out as early as you can” reveals a certain playfulness, coming from a man with a tremendous fear of death. Yet I think it probable that the sardonicism only ironised the overwhelming loneliness expressed in “High Windows” and “Faith Healing”. There Larkin concludes:

In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures.

There is truth to this. But is it true? For some, of course, it is, and heartbreakingly so, but most? Larkin, whose fear of being entrapped by his commitments locked him into convoluted, often arduous bachelordom, exaggerated both the highs and lows of family life – the “joyous shot” of “Home is so Sad” contrasted with the abjection of “Self’s the Man” – so as to make the former seem completely unattainable and the latter seem entirely inevitable. This dignified his predicament. Why not laze about single rooms as that of “Mr Bleaney”, stubbing out one’s cigarettes and “shaking off the dread”, if no one else is really happy?

One can sympathise, of course. One can even empathise. Yet I think this points towards a deeper limitation of his work: it is not too depressing but too consolatory. One could wallow in beautiful pathos; romanticising failure so much as to preclude success. So lovely is “Church Going” that Christians might accept its implication that the church is doomed to fall into obscurity. So beautiful is “Going, Going” that one might find it easier to imagine “England gone”. So striking is “High Windows” that one might too readily glance up and find, “the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless”. This surrender to decline, and this acceptance of futility, tempts people who enjoy being what Samuel Francis called “beautiful losers” but it feels like an excuse for existential indolence. The world demands more clarity and more resolution. Poeticised hopelessness is no more hopeful for being poetic.

Larkin was no nihilist – not a consistent one – even mourning, in “The Mower”, a hedgehog he had innocently killed. “We should be careful/Of each other,” he laments, “We should be kind/While there is still time.” In his way, deploring the fact that he had “mauled its unobtrusive world”, he was evoking thoughts of industrialised progress, chopping up the small, particular and traditional. Elsewhere, in the “The Trees”, he stood apart from nature and observed:

…still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

It is a beautiful thought. Yet one cannot help remembering that trees do not grow again once they are pulled out of the ground. One cannot be immersed in poignance if one’s hope is to conserve and not just elegise.

Posted in Britain, Poetry, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

New Year (Posting) Resolutions…

A new year is a time for reflection; a time to think about the past, and the present, and the future; a time to cherish what is good and assess what is bad; a time to think about what can be changed; a time for resolutions.

We have resolutions for our personal lives – to quit smoking; to exercise; to spend more time with loved ones – but perhaps we need some resolutions for our social media. The Internet heaves with otherwise good, smart people behaving like boors and fools. Tidal waves of tedium, hailstorms of hysteria and blizzards of bullshit crash, swirl and roar.

1. I will have a sense of humour.

The Internet is not real life. It interacts with it but it should not define it. Online dysfunction, social or epistemological, has a lot to do with people losing their sense of perspective and inflating the importance of transient or trivial matters. Being receptive to the comical absurdities of our behaviour helps one to maintain a sense of perspective.

2. I will keep my cool.

I have no wish to promote a spiritually stunted kind of objectivity. Emotions are important. Anger, for example, motivates us and intimidates our enemies. Yet it can be useful in its time and place. It inspires people who are likely to agree with us yet it tends to repulse people who are agnostic. It intimidates opponents in a physical setting yet as well as being crude it is almost entirely useless on the Internet. It makes us less reasonable, and less self-aware, and makes us do ridiculous and obnoxious things. When we are angry on the Internet we should step away, and breathe, and look into the sky.

3. I will check my sources.

Lies, as Mark Twain observed, can spread around the world before the truth has got its boots om. Social media has ensured that lies can spread around the world while the truth is looking for its socks. The temptation to react to apparent outrages, or promote convenient assertions, overwhelms our critical faculties. Even if the truth does get its boots on and stumble into the street it is too late. The lies have gone. How many times have you seen falsehoods get thousands of retweets and corrections get twelve? In 2018 we should at least resolve to check our sources before we promote claims, and assess evidence, not just implications.

4. I will not virtue or vice signal.

“Virtue signalling”, as a term, has been overused: an ad hominem argument for pseudo-intellectuals. At its core, however, is the insight that the Internet allows us to replace virtuous deeds with virtuous assertions; to pose as good people without doing good things. This should be avoided, obviously, as should its companion: vice signalling. We are attracted to subversive and iconoclastic opinions, which can be courageous and incisive to express. They can also be childish, obnoxious and destructive. Many people say obscene things under the delusion that it makes them fearless heretics, while others, perhaps more annoyingly, express mundane opinions with the same jejune pretensions. We should choose ideas based on their logical and evidential value, not their trangressive connotations.

5. I will not dogpile.

The suicide of the pornographic actress August Ames, who had been abused and criticised for alleged homophobia after announcing her refusal to have sex with men who had appeared in gay porn, renewed the debate Jon Ronson had explored in his superb book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?. We all recognise the unfairness of people being attacked by thousands of absolute strangers until John Q. Average tweets something we find dislikable and we swan dive into a dogpile. Abuse should be avoided as a rule, of course, but we should also be aware of the effects of mass hostility on someone’s mental health before unnecessarily contributing denunciation.

6. I will not connect all events to my personal obsessions.

Whenever something happens in politics or art, people see it as justification for their beliefs. If an alien has the misfortune to land on Earth you can bet the little bastard will be used to show that countless things are right and wrong. “What the alien tells us about atheism…” “Why the alien proves Donald Trump is a bad president…” “The alien demonstrates that the world is flat…” If events have implications for our beliefs then we can make that case but we should not be monomaniacal or opportunistic. It is irrational and it is very, very dull.

7. I will not comment on things I know (or care) nothing about.

Bitcoin. “Cat People”. The Last Jedi. Every now and then a subject inflames social media and the Internet is overwhelmed with thousands of opinions. People feel compelled to comment even if they neither know nor care about the subject: directly, with prejudiced pronouncements, or with bad jokes and futile complaints. This does nothing except waste their time and clog up people’s feeds. To avoid squandering our precious hours on the Earth we should abstain from compulsive commentary.

8. I will have a life.

Remembering that we should have lives off the Internet makes us less obnoxious online. More importantly, it makes us less obnoxious in real life. Apart from a few exceptionally influential people, we are more significant in what we say and do than in what we type. Friends and family will remember us when everything that we have published on the Internet is long-archived and ignored. I began by saying that we should keep a sense of perspective so as to avoid embarrassing ourselves online, but we also need a sense of perspective to avoid neglecting that which exists beyond our screens.

Let me end on a cheerful note. For all the bullshit on the Internet I have talked with dozens of fun, interesting people: bloggers, tweeters, commenters, journalists and scholars. I have laughed a lot and learned a lot. I am grateful for that. I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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Killing Children

In his arms, a rabbit
Twitches like a time bomb.
In his eyes, unreason.
In the air, astriction.
I have trouble breathing.
Bosnians are herded,
Stalked by Serbs. Today’s dogs.
Worse behaved. Not a job.
History said, “It’s time.”
The rabbit looked like mine.

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Two Cumbrian Poems

End of the Summer

Autumn has come early:
Drawing clouds like curtains;
Saying, in chilly winds,
“Too late”; imposing rain.
We slip off up the hill,
Admire ignorant sheep
And watch a raven fall.
I stumble over rocks
And think of hospitals.
My brother talks of death
And wills. I admire him
For being factual.
“See you soon,” my love says.
We drift, like clock hands, home.


Against the rocks
The shepherd stands
Our cottage mocks
His calloused hands.
Yet as we sleep
The wild ones wake
And round dumb sheep
Their shadows shake.

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Giles Coren, Explained…

Some might think that Giles Coren is a lifestyle columnist who writes jokey articles about restaurants, cuisine and the trials of middle age. He is not. “Giles Coren” is in fact a morbid exercise in performance art: a fictitious sociopath who has sprung from the mind of its presumably more sane, decent and reasonable creator Giles Coren. “Coren”, the character, is, much like the real man, a middle class restaurant critic and opinion columnist, yet he is also misanthropic, vindictive, lascivious and bigoted.

This intrepretation makes a lot of sense of his career. It outraged me that Giles Coren had published a vicious hit piece libelling Polish immigrants as descendants of people who “used to amuse themselves…by locking Jews in the synagogue and setting fire to it”. I could not imagine how he had kept his job after responding to complaints with, “fuck the Poles”. If a Polish writer said that Jewish people were descendants of Jakub Berman and Julia Brystiger, and responded to complaints with “fuck the Jews”, they would be sacked, and very rightly so. Yet if “Coren” is a character, whose ranting is meant to provide an insight into dark recesses of a sociopathic mind, it is understandable.

“Coren” is in trouble for an Esquire essay in which he expressed his fears that his son would grow up to be fat. “I know what you’re thinking,” he wrote underneath a picture of a little boy who is in no sense overweight, “You’re thinking, “Fat little bastard”.” “Coren” went on to insist that “each actual fat person is blatantly just a badly brought-up, greedy little son of a bitch…I’d kill them all and render them down for candles.” To call this “fat shaming” is a hilarious understatement. This is the demented tirade of a bourgeois Jerry Sadowitz.

What is strange is that people act as if Coren is a jokey lifestyle columnist. His every outburst of depravity is thought comic exaggeration, or, at worst, over the top. Am I the only person who appreciates that this is a postmodern social satire which makes Portnoy’s Complaint look like a children’s book? What does it say about us that so few realise?

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It has been a long time since I have written here but I have been writing elsewhere:

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