In his recent book Enlightenment Now!, the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker defends the Age of Reason’s legacy against its detractors past and present. Ross Douthat, drawing on his own childhood experience, questions “the bright line that Pinker draws between the empirical spirit of science and the unreasoning obscurantism he suggests otherwise prevails.”
When I was a child I lived in several worlds. First was the world that I understood to be the normal one: a world where people had professional degrees and followed their doctor’s instructions strictly and carefully; a world ruled by a solid-seeming secular and liberal consensus about what was scientific, what was certain, what was true. Then there were the other, stranger worlds—which we explored for reasons of chronic illness, religious interest, and some of the roving curiosity that defined my parents’ generation at its best.
First was the world of charismatic religion, where people sought healing and spoke in tongues and prophesied, experiencing the divine as palpably as people in the secular world experienced, say, the pronouncements of the New York Times. Second was the world of alternative medicine and what was then still described, disparagingly, as “health food.” . . .
I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic-diet camps, fit [Pinker’s] definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: if you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to submit meekly to authority, and most determined to reason independently and to keep trying things until they worked. . . .
Which is why, if Pinker and others are genuinely worried about a waning appreciation of the inquiring scientific spirit, they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem—that they might, indeed, be stifling the more comprehensive kind of curiosity upon which the scientific enterprise ultimately depends.