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John Gray: “Scientism has been shown to be an illusion time and time again”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

In “The Knowns and the Unknowns” (The New Republic, April 20, 2012), John Gray reviews Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion :

The belief that the political conflicts of the day can be resolved by applying evolutionary psychology is no more wellfounded than the claims of earlier versions of scientism that invoked phrenology or dialectical materialism. No doubt human knowledge has increased since the days when those pseudo-sciences were in the ascendant. Certainly we know a good deal more about human origins, and about the workings of the human brain, than we did then. But we are no better equipped to deal with moral and political conflict. Intellectually, we may be less well prepared than previous generations, if only because we know less of our own history.

Scientism has been shown to be an illusion time and time again. But it is another illusion to imagine that scientism will go away. Looking to science for deliverance from the tragicomedy of history is part of what it means to be modern. The tracts that come and go in airport bookstores, promising solutions to problems that have baffled the greatest minds, are symptoms of a confusion that is incurable. We may expect many more books that offer to extricate us from conflict by sprinkling the magic dust of science on our disorders.

John Gray is emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.


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