The Line Separating Scientific Empiricism from the Pursuit of the Irrational Is Not So Clear as Steven Pinker Would Like It to Be

Feb. 28 2018

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.

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Read more at New York Times

More about: Enlightenment, History & Ideas, New Age, Science and Religion, Secularism

 

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war