Brace yourself, because the next sentence could get ugly. On the website of the Edge foundation, Daniel Dennett responds to Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s response to accusations of “scientism” (which, the reader will doubtless be overjoyed to hear, I responded to). He has no time for the claim that scientists who venture beyond their fields are guilty of trespassing on other peoples’ land. Indeed, he demands more respect from the humanities…
A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn’t read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences.
I have no particular objections to this, but merely ask that scientists who opine on philosophical, ethical or historical matters acquaint themselves with the bodies of thought in those fields. Richard Dawkins, for example, could have been saved the embarrassment of equating the potential effects of Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing on religion to that of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had he realised that the “nothing” of which Krauss wrote was very different to that of classical theologians.
Even philosophers who champion science could benefit from being more studious when voyaging beyond the grounds of their expertise. Daniel Dennett, for example, in Breaking the Spell, defined the cosmological argument as that which maintains that “since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely God”. His refutation of this claim, by asking for the cause of God, was undermined by the fact that the cosmological argument really states that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. That is why the causeless deity enters the picture. Dennett, Armin Geertz sighed, “knows very little about religion”.
I do not think scientists must stay in their place. Indeed, I think that they have much to offer other disciplines, in terms of data and of methodologies. What is annoying is the presumptuousness with which they stride into fields and assume that they have grasped the lie of the land; assume, indeed, that such fields are so bare that they can understand their nature without contemplation, and without consulting people who have long studied them. It is this behaviour that is liable to provoke hostility towards outsiders.