Thursday, August 15, 2013

Scientism: Threat or Menace?

The word “scientism:” has become a battlefield, with the pot most recently stirred by an essay by Steven Pinker in the New Republic and responses made by cosmologist Sean Carroll and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.  My two cents:

Reading John Haffenden's monster biography of William Empson, I learned that "scientism" was a term of debate back at Cambridge in the 1920s at a time when very serious folks were trying to figure out what could and could not be meaningfully talked about. Both ordinary language philosophy and the New Criticism (among other things) came out of this conversation. In that context, "scientism" referred to a narrow version of licit universe of discourse. It was a philosophical position, not a term of abuse, though the people who supported it most often called themselves positivists.

I've tried to swear off using the word "scientism" myself, but when I've succumbed to temptation and used it in ill-tempered modern arguments, I've meant by it something like vulgar positivism just as one used to talk about vulgar Marxism. This scientism is a largely unreflective pop version of a philosophy that is or at least once was defensible. Like the earlier philosophical version, it asserts or implies a metaphysics in which reality is a large room with objects in it and an epistemology in which rational discourse consists in making factual assertions on the basis of observations when it isn’t bookkeeping. Where the original philosophy made these claims with its eyes open and on the basis of arguments, contemporary scientism does so as if they were commonsense and out of a lack of imagination. My own view is that what the scientists study is an infinitesimal fraction of the volume of the world and the ways they talk about it are a vanishingly small proportion of meaningful ways of speaking. Which doesn't imply that chemistry isn't the best way to do chemistry, it simply reflects my perception of the scope of things.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Small Story

Richard Dawkins’ latest provocation is the tweeted observation that one Cambridge college had won more Nobel prizes than all of Islam. In an on-line discussion of the general issues raised by this particular instance of flame throwing, I wrote:

Dawkins tends to treat Islam as if it had a unitary essence. That's profoundly misleading right now, not because it violates some canon of political correctness but because it makes it hard to see that what's going on even more a struggle inside the Muslim world than a fight between civilizations. Bigoted and uncompromising versions of Islam have been on the rise for a couple of centuries now and they represent a genuine threat, both to traditional and modernizing Muslims. You sometimes hear that the problem is that Islam never had a Reformation, but the real good fortune of the West was that we did have a Reformation that petered out. Imagine John Calvin with the bomb.

From the point of view of most educated people, all religions are nonsense, at least in their popular form. But, to paraphrase David Hume, religions are not malevolent when they go in for superstition instead of enthusiasm. The trouble with many strains of contemporary Islam is their sincerity.

A bit latter in the discussion, somebody linked to a thoughtful essay at a Pakistani website by Irfan Hussain, which stuck me as rather courageous because it admitted, albeit carefully, the connection between Islam and scientific backwardness. “The reason Muslims have been left so far behind is their refusal to embrace modern education, and to cling to rote learning and dogma. By confusing Western thought and influence with rationality, we think we are better Muslims by rejecting modernity.”

It was the dead of night, so I put in my own two cents without bothering to remember that Pakistan is not San Francisco. My thoughts actually got through moderation, but not without significant deletions—what was left out is in boldface. (Apologies for recycling the asparagus bit: I guess I assumed nobody reads Inanis and Vacua in Lahore.)
There’s an old joke that seems to capture the logic or illogic of the situation: a guy explains “I’m glad I don’t like asparagus because if I liked it, I’d eat it; and I can’t stand it.”

And here’s the application. Several Muslims have quoted the Koranic verse to me about how there is no compulsion in religion, and yet apostasy is forbidden and, indeed, punishable by death on some interpretation of religious law.  You must recognize that no outsider is ever going to credit Muslim claims to be a tolerant religion if you won’t even allow anybody to leave it in peace. If you can’t put up with the possibility that somebody might decide that your religion is largely or entirely false, you have given up the game in advance.

Of course I have also been assured that criticism of Islam is perfectly legitimate, yet several Islamic states make “blaspheming the prophet” a civil crime and interpret blasphemy to include suggesting, among other things, that Muhammad was not divinely inspired. Even non-Muslims are subject to persecution for suggesting out loud what every non-Muslim obviously believes, i.e. that Muhammad wasn’t a genuine prophet. Some tolerance. Islamic tolerance is rather like an election in the old Soviet Union. One is completely free except there is really only one permissible choice. Obviously many Muslims are not in favor of this sort of thing and say so, though the fact they seem more comfortable writing about it in English than in their own vernacular is telling.

The absence of practical freedom of debate surely has something to do with the relatively bad performance of the sciences in Islamic countries. You still encounter invocations of the past glories of Islamic science, yet even relatively secular Muslim states like Turkey suppress theories like evolution because they are thought to conflict with religion. Of course there are plenty of Christian fundamentalists who are hostile to Darwinism, but they aren’t in charge and haven’t been for a long time, which is one of the reason that modern biology developed in the West. I’m not sure that Richard Dawkins is tremendously useful in Northern California, but maybe the Middle East needs to develop some homegrown version. 

The editors of the Dawn can hardly be criticized for censoring my comments, and I’m certainly not going to do so. Indeed, publishing the unaltered copy would have been against the law in Pakistan. Specifically, it would have fallen afoul of section 295C of the Criminal Code, a law that is anything but a dead letter in those parts. Prosecutors do prosecute and that’s assuming that the defendants survive long enough to go on trial.

The point of presenting this little story is not to beat up on Muslims; but to point out that at the current pass, it is thoughtful, rational Muslims like Hussain who are most menaced by the intolerance and fanaticism of their fellow religionists. I’m not going to be dragged out of my house and beaten to death for criticizing Islam. Of course, if I were planning on going into politics, I’d be obliged to discover I was a Christian or theist of some sort; but that degree of social coercion is hardly comparable to the legal sanctions and existential threats faced by intellectuals in Muslim countries. In any case, it’s perfectly natural to develop your own thoughts in terms of the tradition in which you are born. The problem isn’t that peaceable and rational people in the Middle East want to think of themselves as Muslims, but that a powerful strain in Islam makes it difficult and dangerous to reform the religion into something less dangerous and irrational. The terrible simplicity of Islam has always been a great part of its appeal and social virulence, but movements like Wahhabism have exacerbated this tendency and, especially in places like Pakistan, turned Muslim against Muslim even more than Muslim against everybody else.