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, this newspaper’s pronouncements.
Second was the world of alternative medicine and what was then still described, disparagingly, as “health food” — the shabby little pre-Whole Foods stores selling organic vegetables and carob and tofu, the chiropractic offices smelling of essential oils, the vegetarian restaurants with New Age bookstores umbilically attached.
I found myself thinking about those childhood worlds while browsing Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now!,” a big book by a big thinker written to defend Reason against its enemies — be they the populist right, the identity-politics left, or a larger crew of historical villains, from Rousseau to Nietzsche, whom Pinker blames for impeding civilization’s march toward ever-greater wealth and health and peace.
His book is at once a salutary reminder of the material progress modern science and commerce have delivered and a propagandistic treatment of the past. Pinker defends a selectively edited Enlightenment that conforms neatly to his style of liberal politics (stridently secular, mildly libertarian, anti-PC), and absolves his idealized version of the modern project of all imperial and eugenic and centralizing cruelties, and all the genocides and persecutions justified in Reason’s name.
But historical critiques of “Enlightenment Now!” are available elsewhere. I’m most interested in the bright line that Pinker draws between the empirical spirit of science and the unreasoning obscurantism he suggests otherwise prevails.
I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his 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 meekly submit to authority, and most determined to reason independently and keep trying things until they worked.
That’s because those worlds’ inhabitants were a self-selected population who had either experienced something transformative or suffered something debilitating and been told by the official consensus, “We have no answers for you yet.” And so they ventured out in search of answers in an intensely experimental spirit — trying to see what people or prayers or situations re-created the initial religious experience, trying to discern what remedy or diet or program might actually make them feel, not just alive, but well.
Such individual experimentation is not the same thing as the scientific method; it lacks the proving tests of replication and consensus. But the two approaches are more closely related than today’s apostles of scientism often suggest. They proceed from the same intense curiosity, the same desire for understanding through experience — and personalized experimentation can be the only way to be empirical when your subject is the strange nexus of the self.
Every human life is, in this sense, a science experiment, and how we choose to react when our assumptions are tested defines the real scope of our curiosity. If you refuse any non-FDA-blessed treatment for chronic illness because there’s no controlled study proving that it works, or have a religious experience and pre-emptively dismiss it as an illusion without seeing what happens if you pray, you may be many things, but you are not really much of an empiricist.
Which is why in many instances the interests that Pinker dismisses as irrational hugger-mugger, everything from astrology to spiritualism, have tended to strengthen during periods of real scientific ferment. It’s why Isaac Newton loved alchemy and the Victorians loved séances; it’s why charismatic Christianity has spread very naturally with economic development in Africa and Latin America and why the Space Age coincided with the spread of all those health food stores.
It’s not that there is some quantum of unreason that needs an outlet when reason’s power grows. Rather, it’s that when people and societies are genuinely curious they are very reasonably curious about everything, including things happening in their bodies and their consciousness and more speculative realms.
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.