Douthat complains about Pinker’s “impressively swift march from allowing, grudgingly, that scientific discoveries do not ‘dictate’ values to asserting that they ‘militate’ very strongly in favor of … why, of Steven Pinker’s very own moral worldview!”:
His argument seems vaguely plausible only if you regard the paradigmatic shaped-by-science era as the post-Cold War Pax Americana rather than, say, the chaos of 1914-45, when instead of a humanist consensus the scientifically-advanced West featured radically-incommensurate moral worldviews basically settling their differences by force of arms.
Like Sam Harris, who wrote an entire book claiming that “science” somehow vindicates his preferred form of philosophical utilitarianism (when what he really meant was that if you assume utilitarian goals, science can help you pursue them), Pinker seems to have trouble imagining any reasoning person disagreeing about either the moral necessity of “maximizing human flourishing” or the content of what “flourishing” actually means — even though recent history furnishes plenty of examples and a decent imagination can furnish many more.
Like his whiggish antecedents, he mistakes a real-but-complicated historical relationship between science and humanism for a necessary intellectual line in which the latter vindicates the former, or at least militates strongly in its favor. And his invocation of “the scientific facts” to justify what is, at bottom, a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche is the pretty much the essence of what critics mean by scientism: Empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious about the ways in which human beings can rationally disagree.
Noah Millman takes both Pinker and Douthat to task. From his conclusion:
Modern science is an extraordinary achievement of human civilization. I am even willing to agree that the knowledge science is capable of producing is genuinely of a different kind from all other forms of knowledge, and that it is the only method that can reliably build suspension bridges of reason across the vast voids of ignorance. It does not follow, therefore, that we can’t learn anything useful any other way. And it certainly doesn’t follow that people following a strictly scientific approach will necessarily learn usefully-applicable things more swiftly than those following other, more traditional or more humanistic approaches. That’s all critics of scientism really need to argue.