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Steven Pinker and the Decline of Humanism

27/08/2013 10:49 BST | Updated 22/10/2013 10:12 BST

Scientists, here's a top tip. If you want to write a piece to win over people in the humanities, don't give your essay the sub-title: 'An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians'. It makes us feel like losers. That's what cognitive linguist and all-round charmer Steven Pinker does in his latest salvo in the New Republic, called 'Science Is Not Your Enemy', where he bemoans humanities scholars for their criticisms of 'Scientism'.

Pinker's argument, very briefly, is this: people in the humanities should stop complaining about the rise of 'Scientism'. Scientism is great. Science has helped to cure diseases and invent the aeroplane and the electric toaster. But more than that: scientific progress has undermined, exposed and debunked animist and religious beliefs, leading to a radical disenchantment of the world. In place of the old supernatural beliefs, scientific progress has opened the way for the rise of secular humanism, by which Pinker means the desire for the flourishing of sentient beings.

Come again?

This seems to me a three-card trick. In arguing that science has not just undermined old faiths but also given us a positive moral vision and purpose, Pinker switches Scientism with secular humanism, and hopes we won't notice. He says that Scientism is 'inextricable' from humanism, and adds: 'the scientific facts militate toward...principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.' Militate how? Are the scientific facts taking to the streets with placards?

I completely agree that scientific progress has undermined our old animist beliefs and led to the disenchantment of the world. But where is the evidence it has led to the ubiquitous desire to maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings?

The fact that humans are doing nothing to prevent climate change suggests that we are not humanists, that we don't really care about the flourishing of other beings. We are not living in a society that shows a deep concern for other beings' flourishing.

Rather, the rise of scientific materialism has helped to create a materialist society, whose guiding moral principle is personal consumption and the desire to maximize our own individual happiness and comfort. The flourishing of other beings comes a long way down our list of moral priorities. Hence, for example, industrial farming: our desire to eat a lot of meat is far more important to us than our concern for animals' welfare.

Pinker says: 'The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.' But they don't actually force us. In fact, we're doing a wonderful job at ignoring the facts and not taking responsibility.

Pinker's secular humanism would seem to be a faith - that humans should care about the flourishing of all sentient beings, and that rationalism and scientific progress will be enough to force us to care. This admirable faith flies in the face of empirical reality: humans evidently don't care about others' flourishing, not enough to actually curtail our personal consumption. We are more willing to destroy our and other species' future than to give up hamburgers. Whatever the word for this is, it's not humanism. How about 'deathism'?

The decline of humanism

I'm a humanist too, though less of a faith-based humanist than Pinker. I deeply admire the first humanists - Renaissance thinkers and artists like Erasmus, More, Ficino, Petrarch, Michelangelo, Dante, Shakespeare, Da Vinci and Bruno. I share their desire to revive what Cicero called the studia humanitatis - classical arts like poetry, history, rhetoric and philosophy - and to build humanist networks of creativity, friendship and civic activism.

The reason, it seems to me, that the Renaissance was such a cultural peak was it balanced reason and revelation. It balanced the claims of this world and the world of the spirit. At its centre was a conception of man as a spiritual being, and a belief that our rationality should serve the end of human flourishing, rather than being an end in itself. The humanists also had a profound sense that reason alone is not enough, that humans are fallen creatures, capable of profound evil. This sense of the spiritual heights and depths that man can reach is what gives the work of Shakespeare much of its sublime power.

Renaissance humanists understood the power of the arts to inspire and galvanize the human spirit, which they did through creations like the Sistine Chapel Ceiling or the Divine Comedy. They understood, as Plato did, the power of the artistic imagination to lift our spirits and connect us to God.

In the Enlightenment, the balance of the empirical and the spiritual was lost. In its place came materialism, and with it a steady decline of the arts, particularly of poetry. The Enlightenment, as Pinker notes, ushered in a grand disenchantment of the world, and the new materialism proved inhospitable terrain for the artistic imagination. Artists lost a sense of their divine vocation, and their output dwindled, in quality if not in quantity.

There were some attempts at poetic resistance, some attempts to reclaim the prophetic mantle, among Romantic poets like Blake, Coleridge, Goethe and Wordsworth, or later Jeremiahs like Lawrence, Yeats, Eliot, Ginsberg and Hughes. But the tide was against them. Today, poetry has become an utterly marginalized activity, a sort of party-trick like spinning plates or dogs on skateboards - amusing, but of no substantial import. The epic imagination has gone flaccid. We have lost our capacity to dream new myths.

Now, belatedly, Pinker tells us that the 'new science' has discovered we are not 'rational actors'. Rather, as social scientists like George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have discovered, we're motivated by moral emotions, which are pushed by metaphors, images, and narratives of the sacred - the very things which scientific materialism has undermined. This, Haidt suggests, is why rational Utilitarianism has so little grip on our imaginations and emotions, why we care so little about the flourishing of other beings, or anything anymore.

Scientism and materialism have led to a gradual drying up of poetry, myths and sacred narratives - and hence a thinning of meaning and flattening of emotion. I suspect, if the next three centuries are as rough as scientists tell us they will be, we will need stories, ones that give us hope and purpose even in the face of mass extinctions. JRR Tolkien, our last great myth-maker, got this. He understood that 'the tales that really mattered' are the ones that give us hope for 'eucatastrophe'. It's an odd word, by which he meant a faith, against all the odds, in sudden joy and happy endings.