Material Issue

Material Issue

By Jackson Lears

“Scientism reached its prior apogee at the end of the nineteenth century, before its positivist certainties fell victim to challenges posed by thinkers in disciplines ranging from psychoanalysis to physics. But now scientism is back, coexisting comfortably—at times interdependently—with neoliberal capitalism and its promoters, whose only standard of value is quantifiable utility. The positivist impulse is most dominant in areas of inquiry that purport to illuminate the mysterious workings of the human mind. In this popular discourse, which infiltrates our public life at every pore, the most influential idioms are pop-Darwinism (known to its adherents as “evolutionary psychology”) and cognitive science. Despite their differences in conception and approach, these idioms have sunk in concert into the morass of half-baked ideas and stale buzzwords that constitutes science journalism.”
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“Scientism depoliticizes political debate by bleaching it with bland claims of neutral expertise.
But the greater dangers of scientism are subtler. It is an impoverished way of knowing, and the particular form the impoverishment takes depends on the idiom that its practitioners deploy. At this mass-market level, evolutionary psychologists reduce human actions to their supposedly adaptive purposes by imagining what life was like on the savannah thousands of years ago, while cognitive scientists equate the brain with a computer and the mind with its software, reducing thought to computation and intelligence to problem-solving. To be clear: these phrasings are the pet locutions of popularizers and propagandists and constitute the language that makes it into the background noise of conventional wisdom. This is not the discourse of serious scientists. These methods seek the simplest, most easily quantified answers to fundamental questions about human conduct; they produce sweeping generalizations devoid of idiosyncrasy or history.”
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“Whether they favor a biological or a computational theory of thought, scientistic thinkers all depend on a behaviorist vision of consciousness, which cannot account for the visceral longings, anxieties, and aspirations that we call subjectivity. Behaviorists, in the positivist tradition, reject any attempt to understand the mind through introspection; inner life is simply off the table. Indeed, for Auguste Comte, who founded the philosophy he called Positivism in the 1830s, introspection was “merely a way to get lost,” as George Makari writes. The formulation is revealing. Positivists—whether they embraced Comte’s philosophy or simply shared his intellectual style—have always feared getting lost, feared ambiguity. This visceral fear is a prescription for reductionist explanations.”
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“For the behaviorist, thinking can only be inferred from observable action in the world: this is how intelligence becomes equated with problem solving. When that troubling subjective dimension of life drops out of the picture altogether, it becomes easier to claim that computers can think. This is what passes for the contemporary science of mind at the level of popular discourse.”
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“Instead, they invoke an “inherent plasticity” in living matter, an active responsiveness to the physical environment. Plasticity and responsiveness combined to create the capacity for generating new organic forms, though in more complex organisms these “inherent material properties” may have ceded importance to genetic factors, which have obscured the importance of earlier, more primitive epigenetic mechanisms. Given this possibility of change over time, the effort to locate the sources of organic form requires an archeological, historical dimension. As Riskin concludes, Müller’s and Newman’s “approach to the history of life assumes inherent natural agencies whose action over time has produced a history that is neither designed nor random, but contingent.”
The implications of this conclusion are fundamentally transformative. Emphasizing what human beings have in common with the rest of the natural world does not reduce humans to passive mechanisms—not if the rest of the natural world is an animated, active mechanism. And a clearer understanding of our relationship to that world requires more than masses of Big Data; it also demands a sensitivity to the ways that organisms engage with the contingent circumstances of their environment in historical time. That environment includes religions and ideologies and economic systems as well as air and soil and water. Who knows? Maybe scientists will have something to learn from historians, as well as the other way around.

The consequences of a fresh perspective might be political and moral as well as intellectual. A full recognition of an animated material world could well trigger a deeper mode of environmental reform, a more sane and equitable model of economic growth, and even religious precepts that challenge the ethos of possessive individualism and mastery over nature. Schrödinger’s question—what is life?—leads us to reconsider what it means to be in the world with other beings like but also unlike ourselves. The task could not be more timely, or more urgent.”

From The Baffler

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