Posts Tagged ‘Scientism 101’

Pinker on Scientism …

August 8, 2013

So, Stephen Pinker has decided to take on scientism, in an article where he implores those in the humanities to not consider science an enemy. However, as I argued through my Scientism 101 series, most of the humanities don’t consider science an enemy, and are often more than happy to consider its input if they think it will help them solve their problems. Philosophy, for example, has a long history of trying to integrate science and its successes into its own methodology … with at best mixed results. For the most part, when philosophers say “Science isn’t going to help here” they aren’t saying that because they’re afraid of science encroaching on their field, but instead because they’ve looked at what science can bring to the table and discovered that it really can’t being much. And in pretty much all the fields where science could have any bearing, the question of whether or not science could help us solve the problems keeps getting raised … by philosophers. While one can argue that religion tends to treat science like an enemy, it’s hard to see how philosophy and most of the humanities treat it that way.

But this strikes at one of the major issues with Pinker’s essay. He starts with this:

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

So who were these “scientists”?

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith— …

It’s very interesting to call these thinkers “scientists”, considering that of those about the only one that you might find talked about at all in any course under the Faculty of Science at most universities is Descartes … and that would be for his mathematics, mostly. All of these thinkers and those great and important thoughts that Pinker mentions are covered in … philosophy courses. You won’t get through Philosophy 101 without hearing a lot about Descartes, and you’ll probably at least get Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Kant there as well. When you start talking about ethics, you’ll hear about Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Kant. There are entire graduate level courses in philosophy dedicated to Spinoza and Leibniz. Smith, assuming that I’m thinking of the right one, gets talked about in economics and poltical science courses. These “scientists” that Pinker talks about are people who are major figures in the humanities, but are never or rarely talked about in formal science courses. The humanities revere them and think of them as important, while the sciences mostly ignore them. So how in the world can you justify calling them scientists? It would be like treating Newton as primarily a philosopher even though his philosophical work is mostly ignored in philosophy and his actual scientific work is fundamental to science and taught in introductory science courses. There is no reason to treat these thinkers as scientists and not philosophers.

That’s a big issue in Pinker’s essay: while he spends a lot of time talking about the impact of science on religion and how the humanities can use science to get past that, he tends to completely ignore the actual humanities in those discussions … and yet he wants to claim that science will not displace the humanities or subsume them under science, but that instead science will simply help. To that end, focusing more on what the humanities bring to the table, demonstrating that he understands what they can bring to the table and the limits to what science itself can do. He handwaves at that at times, but the fact that the humanities themselves get mostly ignored and that some of the things he says are flat-out ignorant of the history of the questions and fields he presents means that his essay fails to hit the point; he demonstrates the problems of scientism while attempt to demonstrate that there are no such problems.

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.”

But the reason that they are accused of that is, generally, because they are guilty of it. Jerry Coyne, for example, insists that the world is deterministic and that this means that there is no free will, and he opposes compatibilists who are trying to bridge the two and preserve an interesting notion of free will, and he isn’t alone. We do see a lot of reductionism, particularly in philosophy of mind. And the series on scientism referenced above has to deal with people who advocate positivist positions. Add in that in that series I outlined what I considered scientism and demonstrated that it does seem to occur — especially “broad scientism” — it seems that they are accused of it because, well, they engage in it. And considering that all of the issues listed there other than scientism are long-standing debates in those fields — especially philosophy — it’s perfectly understandable that people might resent science wandering into those debates claiming to have all the answers when what they’re saying is, really, nothing new (the reaction to Krauss and Hawking on the “Something from Nothing” question seems to be that sort of comment).

But “scientism” is indeed often vaguely defined, and I’m certainly not going to claim that no one who decries scientism is doing so more out of, say, an idea that their preferred methodology is the right one as opposed to a real, solid argument, so let’s look at what Pinker calls “scientism” and why he wants to adopt that as a good thing as opposed to a bad thing:

It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

The first is that the world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms. The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules.

The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

The problem here is that Pinker’s two ideals don’t seem particularly scientific, meaning particular to it. Sure, to be science one may have to adopt them, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to suggest that, say, philosophy hasn’t embraced these two principles, and yet seems to have a methodology that’s different from science … and it should know, considering that it originally spawned science and considered it a subset of its method — natural philosophy — rather than the whole method itself. But take a look again at that list of things that should be dismissed as sources of knowledge … and that he seems to say should simply be dismissed as sources of knowledge: faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, subjective certainty. If he’s going to go after religion and try to import these things to it, he’s going to have to recognize that faith, revelation and dogma are things that they think work, which means that he’s going to have to argue against it, and argue against it with something that both sides agree works. If science a priori rejects those things, then that isn’t going to work well at all. And authority, conventional wisdom, and subjective certainty seem to be things that, philosophically, we’ve demonstrated can, at least at times, produce knowledge, and even knowledge where science simply can’t get anything like knowledge, or at least where it’s very difficult. The amazing success of folk psychology over the scientifically infused psychology demonstrates that sometimes conventional wisdom works out really well, and thus can even justify itself. In order to solve this problem, Pinker needs something like philosophy, something that doesn’t presume what can generate knowledge but argues for what can and what can’t at a base level that, for the most part, everyone can accept.

So, these two ideals are philosophically questionable, and to the extent that they aren’t questionable they aren’t explicitly scientific. So it seems that right off the bat Pinker is at best claiming things as being fundamentally scientific when they aren’t (they’re fundamental to science, certainly, but not fundamentally scientific) and making claims of what is valid and reasonable about other fields by appealing to justifications that those fields don’t accept. Ignoring the other fields, what they do, and what they need is not a good way to start assuaging the fears of those who aren’t happy about the encroachment of science into the humanities.

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities.

The problem here is that he says that we are guided in our moral and spiritual values by science … as a conclusion to a paragraph that talks entirely about how science disproves religion. And so those possibilities that are hemmed in by science? Well, religious ones. So, here he’s basically arguing that science eliminates religion — ie that it will subsume/eliminate religion because it should — and so that those who are religious are right to fear its encroachment … while ignoring the humanities who are also fearing that, and who he’s trying to calm. And when he outlines this new replacement:

And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

… he ignores that this was done philosophically, without any of these modern scientific facts, by Hobbes. His statement here is nothing more than Hobbesian Social Contract, which is not a particularly popular position in moral philosophy, for good reason: It relies on Ethical Egoism, and is seen as being incompatible with an altruism worthy of the name. It is not, despite popular belief, the equivalent of Utilitarianism. Now, none of this means that this isn’t right, but this isn’t new either, and any new facts that can be brought to the table don’t help it, at all. And the conclusion itself is controversial, and it isn’t even clear that this is a view that is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world. Pinker is, again, taking philosophical positions, claiming them to be science, and then saying that science can help because look at what it brings us? It’d be nice if he’d understand the actual positions of the humanities and the work they’ve done before proclaiming what science can do to help them.

Moreover, science has contributed—directly and enormously—to the fulfillment of these values. If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science.

Few argue that science, in and of itself, has not provided benefit. The scientism debate is not normally one over whether or not science is good; most accept that it is. Even his comments about the criticisms of those who list the contributions science has made to attrocities generally only do it to point out that it’s difficult to claim that science can define our moral values when it has been invoked to support moral attrocities as well as moral progress. Science is descriptive and valueless. It tells us how to achieve our values once we figure out what they are, and so once we decide what our values are we can use science to help us achieve them … depending on what those values are, of course. So it is certainly the case that science will be of use to morality … but it will not particularly help us define what it means to be moral in the first place.

Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science. They are commonly misinformed that scientists no longer care about truth but merely chase the fashions of shifting paradigms.

Well, here’s the thing: students can graduate from elite colleges in the sciences with only a trifling exposure to any of the humanities. Note that in philosophy at least, science gets covered quite a bit, especially since a lot of its fields benefit in at least some way from it. The idea of “paradigm shift” comes from Kuhn … who developed that by empirically studying what scientists actually do. In short Kuhn did science on science and came up with that conclusion … and in philosophy that’s expressed as one idea while the Popperian ideal is stressed as being what the scientific method is really about. Again, Pinker reveals that he knows little about what actually goes on in the humanities while chastising them for not respecting science enough. And, sure, philosophy and the humanities do indeed do similar things to science, but that hardly helps his case.

I can testify that this recrimination is not a relic of the 1990s science wars. When Harvard reformed its general education requirement in 2006 to 2007, the preliminary task force report introduced the teaching of science without any mention of its place in human knowledge: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.” This strange equivocation between the utilitarian and the nefarious was not applied to other disciplines. (Just imagine motivating the study of classical music by noting that it both generates economic activity and inspired the Nazis.) And there was no acknowledgment that we might have good reasons to prefer science and know-how over ignorance and superstition.

The interesting thing here is that the benefits that Harvard cites are pretty much what he and others cite as the reasons why science has been successful and what it has done to help humanity. Noting that science and technology have also had downsides is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly for something that so many people — Pinker himself — tend to cite as unvarnished goods. And the reasons to prefer science over ignorance are given by … the benefits listed in the first part. Hello? So this seems to be nothing more than a gripe that they didn’t just stand up and say that science is great and wonderful and we should just all follow it. Sure, maybe they didn’t say similar things about other fields, but classical music, for example, is not about those benefits, nor does it justify itself by appealing to them. Science does. And so listing the benefits really is important in understanding and accepting science’s role and its success, and why we should value it … and so for completeness we should list its problems as well. Shouldn’t we?

At a 2011 conference, another colleague summed up what she thought was the mixed legacy of science: the eradication of smallpox on the one hand; the Tuskegee syphilis study on the other. (In that study, another bloody shirt in the standard narrative about the evils of science, public-health researchers beginning in 1932 tracked the progression of untreated, latent syphilis in a sample of impoverished African Americans.) The comparison is obtuse. It assumes that the study was the unavoidable dark side of scientific progress as opposed to a universally deplored breach, and it compares a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people with the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century, in perpetuity.

Sure, the syphilis study isn’t an unavoidable dark side … but it isn’t prevented by science either. There is nothing in the scientific method that says that you shouldn’t study syphilis that way or through one of the many horrific ways we have gained knowledge in the past. It’s morality and moral values that do that, and moral values do not come directly from science, which is generally valueless. In fact, science unvarnished puts gaining knowledge as its top goal, and that implies that you do it any way you can. So learning through atrocities is perfectly compatible with science … but not with morality. Which should, then, make one thing clear: science, in and of itself, does not have moral values and so we must watch science carefully, and hold it to the standards of morality provided by … philosophy. A humanity, you will note. We need ethics boards carefully examining scientific experiments like we have in psychology. That is, indeed, what we have to take from the mixed legacy of scientific investigation. Which does not prove science bad, but rather proves it, well, valueless, in the moral sense.

The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.

It isn’t the lack of new ideas that is causing the problems in the humanities, nor is it the case that science is necessarily providing them. The problem is the attitude that science is the hallmark of all knowledge worth having, and so things that work the way science does and, more importantly, produce results of the same sort and frequency as those of science — mostly of direct application to our daily lives — are the only things that really have value or are worth studying. Instead of trying to infuse these fields with science to make them more appealing, we need to look at these fields as these fields and demonstrate how they are indeed important. We don’t want these fields to bleed their respect from science, and gain respect only insofar as they work as science or can be considered to be such. Thus, we need to treat the fields not as subfields of science, but as fields in their own right, with the own problems, goals, and methodologies.

Jerry Coyne and the “Postivist Petard”

October 21, 2012

If I can get the term “Positivist Petard” popularized anywhere near as much as “The Courtier’s Reply” is, I think I’d be fairly happy. Or, I suppose, content. For a while.

Jerry Coyne has recently written a post about Ian Hutchinson’s recent arguments about scientism, and unfortunately seems to end up right in the Positivist Petard, yet again. There are two absolutely key arguments that he needs to make his case against Hutchinson:

He claims that “there is real knowledge is history, philosophy, economics, and jurisprudence,” and that knowledge is acquired by methods different from those used by the natural sciences. He’s wrong: the knowledge is acquired by empirical observation and testing, unless he’s claiming that moral dicta or legal principles are ‘knowledge’, in which case he’s not talking about knowledge but opinions.

and:

Well, if the existence of God is not a scientific question, at least in the broad sense of “science” as “seeing if something really exists using the methodology of repeatable observation and verified prediction,” then it’s not a question that can be answered one way or another.

Now, the question that Coyne really, really needs to try to answer at some point is … how does he know that these two crucial points are true? How does he know that moral dicta are just opinions? It doesn’t look like you can settle that by empirical observation and testing, for two really, really important reasons:

1) Moral dicta are not about what people think are dicated morally, but are about what really are dicated morally regardless of people’s opinions. As such, we aren’t interested in what people currently think are dicated morally, or if people currently think that moral dicta are really just opinions, but instead on whether there is an actual objective answer to question like “Is slavery morally right?”. No one would deny that you can find out what people think is the case empirically, but the question is not that one, but is whether they are right to think that. Thus, in much the same manner as appealing to the fact that most people think that God exists does not in any way provide justification for claiming that we can therefore know that God exists, you cannot argue that what most people think about whether or not morals are opinions means that that is justification for claiming that we know that morals just are (or are not) opinions.

2) That sort of empirical evidence is contradictory; at times, people behave as if they believe that morals are just opinions, but at other times they behave as if they believe that morals are objective facts. So the current empirical evidence wouldn’t even justify that statement if it could justify it.

So, it doesn’t look like you can use empirical data to settle it, let alone “the methodology of repeatable observation and verified prediction”, which is a bit above naive empiricism. And on that question, again we have to ask how he knows that if a question cannot be settled using that methodology that it can’t be answered. In particular, we have to ask what repeatable observations and verified predictions could possibly settle that question without being circular or assuming the conclusion. You can’t use the common cop-out of arguing that you haven’t seen any examples of other ways of answering questions because a) that wouldn’t justify thinking it true (that’s the inductive fallacy) and b) you run the risk of simply claiming that anything that wasn’t produced that way wasn’t really knowledge, as Coyne seems to think.

Now, if we can’t know whether these claims are true or false using the standards that they set-up, what reason do we have for accepting the claims? If I’m right that we can’t, then either Coyne does not know them to be true — at which point I can happily ignore them — or else he knows them by means other than the ones he’s using to ground his questions in, at which point we can get knowledge by other sources and his base principles, then, are obviously false. This is the Positivist Petard: defining your standard for knowledge such that you cannot know that your standards for knowledge really are the standards for knowledge using those same standards, which means that you end up either not knowing that your standards are the standards or you end up justifying them by means other than those covered by your standards, proving them wrong.

So, Coyne really, really needs to justify those standards above by his standards. I am utterly convinced that he can’t.

Coyne also engages in equivocation, of the sort that he normally does when dealing with science. Hutchinson, from Coyne’s own quote of him, defines what he means when he says that science can’t answer religious questions quite clearly:

And really, in a sense it’s a remarkable idea—that the idea of the existence of God would be a scientific question, in the sense of a natural-sciences question, because if one can think of almost any question, of all the questions we could ask ourselves that might not be a scientific question, it seems to me that a metaphysical question about the existence of God is a prime example of a question that is not a scientific question.

Coyne, in replying, clearly defines science this way:

Well, if the existence of God is not a scientific question, at least in the broad sense of “science” as “seeing if something really exists using the methodology of repeatable observation and verified prediction,” …

But Coyne’s broader definition, it seems, is not the definition that Hutchinson is using. Hutchinson is clearly attempting to talk about whether or not it can be found by the methods of the natural sciences, and argues that it can’t. Coyne claims to be using a “broad sense of science”, which would seem then to go beyond that definition. Thus, if Coyne is going to object to Hutchinson’s claim that science cannot answer those religious questions, he’s going to have to deal with how Hutchinson defines science, and not simply slip into his own personal definition. If Coyne defines “science” broadly enough, Hutchinson will certainly agree that if science is defined that way then of course science can answer those sorts of questions, but that’s not what he’s arguing. A lot of Coyne’s arguments against scientism are based around making exactly this sort of equivocation, and it boggles my mind that he can’t see that.

Perhaps the answer to both of these common issues for Coyne is that he really does need to learn a little more philosophy.

Is Coyne Accusing People of “Philosophism”?

June 11, 2012

So, Jerry Coyne is talking about articles taking Lawrence Krauss to task for dismissing philosophy, he rather humorously says this:

Here Rovelli includes both conceptual thinking and application of a methodology under the rubric of “philosophy.” Well, that wasn’t my definition, but since “philosophy” is an ill-defined concept, by all means let him call it what he wants. Yes, many scientists engage in conceptual thinking (that’s how the notion of inclusive fitness—indeed, of evolution itself—was born in evolutionary biology) and they also “apply a methodology.” But to claim that that is truly philosophy smacks a bit of turf defense. What I wonder, in the end, is whether progress in physics would have been retarded had there not been a formal field of the philosophy of science. I’m open to arguments either way, but for now I’m unaware of any advances in physics that wouldn’t exist in the absence of the philosophy of science as a discipline.

So, first, note that he’s basically griping about philosophers defining philosophy “broadly”, and so broadly that it includes things that he considers “science”. And yet, somehow he does not note how he, in turn, defines science broadly, to the extent that it likely includes philosophy. How, then, is he not engaging in the precise same “turf defense” that he claims the philosophers do? At least philosophy has, in fact, philosophical examinations independent of discussions with science and physics to claim that it, at least, is interested in conceptual analysis; all he has for his turf defense are his own personal philosophical — and not scientific — ruminations.

Second, there are also no advances in philosophy that wouldn’t exist in the absence of physics as a discipline. So what? Yes, yes, I know that this is in response to a comment that philosophy is really useful for science, but it’s still a bit of an odd comment.

Ultimately, it almost seems here like Coyne is accusing philosophers of philosophism, when he is the first to deny that the term “scientism” is a useful classification.

Those who do not study philosophy are doomed to repeat it …

May 23, 2012

Ah, Jerry Coyne is talking about scientism again, and has trotted out his standard reply:

…I still await the questions that non-empirical ways of knowing can answer about the world.

Well … that one, actually.

Let me clarify. Coyne here is clearly asking the question, as he has done more explicitly before, of if there is any knowledge or true propositions that can be reached non-empircally, or if we can ever have a non-empirical way of knowing itself. Coyne, it seems to me, thinks that you can’t, and that all knowledge is based on empirical data. Despite his qualification of not having closed his mind, he clearly thinks that it is true that all knowledge has an empirical basis or is judged or justified empirically. And if he thinks that, then we can ask him this: Can you justify the proposition “There is no non-empirical knowledge” empirically?

Now, if he can, then he would, of course, have the answer to his question, and he would no longer need to await those questions, because he would have proven — to whatever standard of “proven” he thinks gives us knowledge — that there can’t be. So if he knows that the proposition is true and can justify that empirically, it seems his best strategy would be to do just that, and settle it, instead of asking those who are skeptical of that proposition to prove him wrong.

But I suspect that he doesn’t do that because he can’t. And if he can’t prove that proposition empirically, then there are only two options, neither of which should be palatable. The first is to try to prove it true, but to do so non-empirically. This, of course, can’t actually be done, because then we’d have to have knowledge of something that we can only demonstrate non-empirically which states that you can’t actually have knowledge of anything that’s only demonstrated non-empirically. The other alternative is to say that he can’t demonstrate it true and so doesn’t know that it’s true. At which point, our reply would be that then he’s giving us no reason to accept it as true and reduce our skepticism.

Ultimately, this shows that Coyne’s proposition is what I’ll name the Postivist Petard, since catchy names seem all the rage these days. It follows on from logical positivism, which gained the honour of being the only philosophical theory that philosophy has actually claimed is completely and unredeemably false by running into this problem, which is: Declaring that X is the only way to justify knowledge claims while the proposition “X is the only way to justify knowledge claims” cannot be justified with X. If you do that, you end up with the key proposition being unjustifiable by your own favoured method, and so you would be using an unjustified and unjustifiable proposition in your argument … if anyone takes your argument seriously. Which, once you do that, no one will.

Thus, Coyne has his answer … unless he can demonstrate it empirically.

Now, Coyne can try to escape the burden of proof here by arguing that he doesn’t think that he knows that proposition, but instead merely thinks it plausible and that we all either should or generally do also find it plausible. Well, first, philosophy itself long ago found that proposition quite implausible, which is why logical positivism was defeated in the first place. Second, the proposition seems implausible the instant we recognize why Coyne’s response is to ask for an answer. We can’t go out and look at all of the propositions we’ve currently come to know and see that they have all come to us through empirical observation, because that would lead us to the inductive fallacy. Thus, we can’t just look at what we have, and so Coyne is forced to ask for a counter-example. But doing that insists that the proposition is the default and only works in that case. But we have no reason to think that it should be the default, particularly given the fields — philosophy and mathematics, specifically — that say that empirical justification is not required for their propositions. Coyne, then, would have to deny that they produce knowledge or prove that all of their questions are justified empirically. The former runs him right back into a question that likely cannot be settled empirically, while the latter is difficult and still wouldn’t justify his claim. So, while he may indeed be able to do it, we seem quite justified in being skeptical that it will succeed, and so are justified in claiming his proposition implausible. And then we’re right back to Coyne having to justify the proposition, which is what this was supposed to free him from.

Another error that Coyne always makes is to demand that we demonstrate non-empirical ways of knowing. This seems to conflate being empirical in any sense with being the same way of knowing, or as Coyne puts it “… observation and reason”. The problem is that this can be denied: you can have empirical and rational methodologies that nevertheless are not the same way of knowing, and I argue that science indeed allows for this.

To prove this, I use Larry Moran’s definition of science, that claims that it is rational, empirical, and skeptical. I also then contrast it with everyday reasoning, which I concede is empirical and rational, but which is not skeptical. In our everyday reasoning, we do not withhold belief or knowledge claims until we have a massive preponderance of evidence, but instead simply accept the proposition that best “fits” as our working theory. Thus, everyday reasoning and science cannot be the same way of knowing, because science is skeptical and everyday reasoning is not. Coyne could deny this by arguing that skepticism is not a key part of science, but I doubt he would like that very much, so Moran’s definition seems safe. There could be arguments mustered to claim that everyday reasoning is in fact skeptical, but it would be hard for me to see what definition of “skeptical” could allow that.

So, then, let us turn to religion/theology. These, then, could be empirical and rational, and yet not be skeptical, and so would be ways of knowing that use empiricism and reason and yet are still not science. Now, the Argument from Design is primarily empirical. The Ontological Argument is primarily rational. The Cosmological Argument is both. Putting aside claims that the arguments are wrong, this would demonstrate that religion/theology uses both empiricism and reason in its arguments, and so is as empirical and rational in principle, as a “way of knowing” as science is. So, is it skeptical? Well, clearly any way of knowing that includes faith is not skeptical, by definition. Thus, like everyday reasoning, religion/theology can be both empirical and rational and yet be a different way of knowing to science … which shouldn’t surprise anyone, since it got its start from everyday reasoning.

Ultimately, the issue of scientism here and in general is in finding a way to exclude religion/theology while still including things like everyday reasoning, philosophy and mathematics. If you make your definition of science too broad, then it will end up making religion/theology science … which is not what incompatiblists like Coyne want. But if you make it too narrow, then things that we really do think are ways of knowing suddenly aren’t, and it seems only because you want to get religion/theology out of the “way of knowing” business. But if good religion/theology can be empirical and rational, then how can you include what includes those without including religion/theology as well? And if you want to include philosophy and mathematics, how do you do that without at least allowing for a way of knowing that at least some of the time doesn’t rely on empirical data?

Thus, hoisted by your own petard. The Positivist Petard, to be precise.

Kitcher on Scientism …

March 26, 2012

Via Edward Feser’s site, I came across this review of Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” by Philip Kitcher. He spends a lot of it talking about scientism, and says this right at the end:

Scientism rejects dialogue: the sciences provide the answers; the lesser provinces of the intellectual and cultural world should take instruction. To be sure, well-supported messages from the sciences are sometimes foolishly ignored — think of the warnings from climate scientists about our planet’s future. Yet scientism can easily prove counterproductive. However worthy the impulse to trumpet urgent news, smugness, arrogance and delight in shattering entrenched beliefs are as apt to alienate as to convert. The challenge is not to decide who has the Most Important Insights, but to comprehend the knowledge we have, finite, fallible and fragmentary as it is. We should make the most of it.

I think that all of the forms of scientism I talked about in the series all follow from that first sentence, meaning that if you accept that attitude you either have to argue that only things that are scientific are useful or are answers or alternatively you have to broaden science so that it does, in fact, provide all the answers. And I think the last sentence is important as well; we need to decide what is the best approach to use for a particular question, not try to decide what — if any — method is the best for all questions.

Scientism 101: Scientism

January 4, 2012

The last post — for a while at least — in this series.

In this one, I’m going to define what I consider to be scientism. Right now, I divide it up into two main categories, which I’ll call Broad Scientism and Narrow Scientism. There may be more categories out there, and there may be more instances in each, but for right now these are the sorts of things that I mean when I go after scientism.

1) Broad Scientism.

This category involves in some way broadening the scope of science beyond the scope it really should have. There are a number of ways this can be done.

1) Saying that science should be broadly defined to include things beyond the scope of what most people would think should be included in science. So, let me first exclude some cases here. Saying — as is fairly often done in philosophy — that science may be able to address a problem that was not specifically a scientific problem (like, say, ethics) is not in and of itself scientism. Nor, in fact, is arguing that we need a broader definition for what is science because some of the things we think are science need a broader definition to work. What this one means is simply defining science more broadly — like to any form of rational inquiry — for no real reason. So, simply saying “Science, broadly construed …” is scientism unless you argue for why science should be construed broadly. The main reason for my post about philosophy being a better candidate for that broad definition was to demonstrate just how controversial the presumption that the term “science” ought to used for that actually is.

2) Defining science broadly — even with argumentation — while then still giving epistemic primacy to the formal sciences. So, in this case, it would be saying that science broadly construed includes things like mathematics and philosophy but then claiming that facts from the formal sciences prove that the philosophical and mathematical arguments and problems are resolved without any other argumentation. In short, coming up with a scientific result, leaping to a conclusion about what it means from a naive interpretation, and then expecting that you won’t have to do any more philosophical work to prove your point, or ignoring philosophical objections to your philosophical point because “Science says”. This would be a form of equivocation, and so would not only be a really bad argument but it would be one that, in fact, gives science more primacy than it might deserve.

3) Giving a definition — any definition — of science and then arguing that if any field uses any part of that definition that it is also science. So, for example, defining science as being empirical, experimental and rational and then saying that if a field uses empirical data or reason, then it must be science. Or, the converse, insisting that if you use an empirical argument at all, then that’s somehow justification for science, and that any case where empirical data is used proves a point about this debate. Ultimately, the problem here is having a definition that might exclude some fields since they don’t do all of them but then sneaking back in a broader definition by refusing to allow those fields to use any of those things or else they’re conceding something. This is wrong because there is a big difference between a field that is empirical, rational and skeptical and one that is empirical, rational, but not skeptical. If empirical and rational are meant to be the critical components so that using either says something, then that should be specified in the definition itself, and not smuggled in later.

2) Narrow Scientism

Narrow Scientism consists of narrowing the areas of interest or subject matters so that science is the only one that matters. It can appear even with broader definitions of science, though, so don’t think it just applies to the very narrow definitions.

1) Arguing that the only areas of fields other than science that are interesting are those that are interesting to science. So, arguing that only ethics or some parts of logic are interesting from philosophy or that only those parts of mathematics that help model the world in science — generally the more narrow forms, of course — are examples of this. Also trying to justify the use or invention of mathematics solely on the fact that it might benefit science in the future would count. The problem with this is that while that is indeed what might interest scientists about that field, it’s not going to be what interests the people in that field, nor should it be. The fields themselves get to decide what is or isn’t of interest to them, and science is free to help itself to what of that interests it. And if science would like the other fields to focus on something specific that interests them, they could always ask politely and in general the other fields will be happy to oblige.

2) Limiting the subject matter of knowledge to that which is directly about the empirical, experienced world that science studies. So, for example, claiming that mathematics doesn’t give knowledge because mathematical entities don’t actually exist in the world. The problem with this, of course, is that the other fields have their own subject matters, and there’s no reason to think that knowledge has to be about the world that science studies, and in fact all the evidence we have is against this.

Now, are my definitions strawmen? It’s hard to see how they could be. 1-1 is something that is clearly done, and it wouldn’t take too much searching to find places where Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne do exactly that. 1-2 is a bit harder, but some of Coyne’s discussions of free will might be seen as doing it. Give that one a pass for an actual example, but hold onto it as an error that people may well be making, even if not deliberately. 1-3 is one way of interpreting Coyne’s challenge to Keith Ward to produce one piece of knowledge that was not found empirically; philosophy may well have a distinct method from Coyne’s definition and still use some empirical data, so just having the data be empirical would not be sufficient to say anything interesting. That being said, he might there have been reacting to Ward’s argument that some knowledge is non-empirical. However, interpreting it that way Coyne runs straight into 2-2; he talks about “fact about the world” and “fact” interchangeably, but that need not be what anyone means by fact. And I’ve seen commenters at various sites imply 2-1 and 2-2, and Coyne’s list of things he things are “serious philosophy” in his reply to myself and Dan Fincke leans on this a bit as well.

So, 1-1 is confirmed. 1-3, 2-1 and 2-2 are things that a not unreasonable interpretation might imply but might just be misunderstandings. 1-2 is just something to watch out for. But they certainly aren’t strawmen, then, in any interesting way. I can clearly find those who practice scientism, and I think it wrong. So, at least with me, the debate can start with 1-1.

Note that in a comment at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, I was asked if his view of not calling it science but still trying to find some sort of general term for rational inquiry would be scientism. As you should be able to tell by now, it wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t be wrong or at least have no argument for why he includes some things and not others. Not all errors are scientism.

Scientism 101: Philosophism and Religionism …

December 31, 2011

The next post in my on-going series on scientism.

Jerry Coyne recently made a good point about the scientism debate:

And if “scientism” means “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for science,” then we must also have a new term, “religionism”, meaning “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for religion.” And we could also have “philosophism,” fallacies based on too much respect for philosophy. Religionism, of course, is pervasive, but we don’t see Pigliucci, or anyone else, accusing the faithful or repeatedly committing this logical error.

Now, this is based on Paul M. Paolini’s definition of scientism, which is not one I particularly favour (and, if you read Coyne’s attempt to reply to it, it’s not even particularly clear since Coyne seems to miss the point of it but, in fact, that’s an error that is consistent with Paolini’s at least broad statement). So the specifics of the definition are not what is good about this quote. What is good about this quote is the fact that he brings up — but unfortunately both uses incorrectly here and elsewhere — that if we have a scientism, can we have a philosphism or religionism as well, a case where philosophy and religion are imposing just as invalidly on science as we claim scientism cases impose on those fields?

And my reply is … absolutely. We don’t, I think, have a term for this because at least in our current culture philosophical and religious claims are generally ignored by science anyway; to get, say, philosophy of mind to be considered at all by science you have to go into an interdisciplinary field which by definition includes multiple fields, and even then it can sometimes be a hard row to hoe to get reasonable philosophical concerns considered. So, in general, we don’t have a term — or, at least, one that is in common use — for those cases because, in general, no one thinks it a problem. At best and at first blush, it would seem that those who would ever advocate such things quickly get brushed off and ignored by science fairly quickly, and aren’t taken seriously. And in general most people don’t expect science to take it seriously.

But is that really true? It might be reasonable to think that at least some of the “teach the controversy” advocacy does cross the line into religionism and, in fact, is something that a great many people think science should take quite seriously. Why should any creationist or ID position be taught in science classes when they aren’t scientific theories? Let’s take one potential response: Because science should consider those to be valid theories. But on what grounds should science accept creationist, ID or theistic evolutionary stories as being the default or preferred theory in science, or even as a valid one? The answer seems to be that there are religious reasons, from the claim that religions claim it to — more appropriate to theistic evolution — the claim that it makes sense of religious claims while also taking on all of the scientific data. Science can, quite rightly, say that reconciling their claims with religion are not their concern, and so can ignore the appeals to add those views due to religious issues.

However, there is another argument that wouldn’t be religionistic, which is that if science either directly or indirectly takes a religious position then since public schools are not allowed to take religious positions science would either have to not teach the things that take religious positions or make certain that the opposing religious positions are represented and represented fairly. Since Coyne likes to claim about how science and religion are incompatible and how evolution is incompatible with a theistic God, this might be a valid charge. Claiming that wouldn’t be religionistic though; at best, it would be political but political concerns do influence how and what things are taught in schools.

So, why is the first religionistic and the second not? The first claims that science should take the position seriously based solely on concerns raised from outside of science, in this case religion. The second does not claim anything about how science should consider the arguments, but points out that in order to teach it in public schools certain conditions must be in place. The key difference is that to be one of the “isms” we’re talking about here you have to be making a claim of how the other field should be thinking about it, not just a pragmatic claim.

But we can go a step further into non-“ismic” claims, because what I, at least, think we don’t want is a segmentation of all of these fields. We want it to be the case that relevant information and knowledge from all fields can be used to raise issues for or to guide other fields. We want it to be the case that scientific knowledge can guide philosophy and that philosophical conceptual analysis can guide science. So if empirical or scientific concerns can help us tease out ethical concerns, then there’s no problem with doing that (My essay on psychopaths does just that). And if concerns about things like epiphenomenalism may raise issues for straight neuroscientific theories of mind then there’s no problem with scientists looking at the philosophy and starting to sweat a bit. And I don’t even have a problem with science informing interpretations of religious works (especially since, well, I do that all the time). Having various fields inform each other is not a problem. The issue is not with the various fields presenting issues for the others for consideration, but with the insistence that those issues must be taken seriously because they are issues or knowledge generated by that field and so must be issues for the others. So saying that philosophy must accept determinism no matter how ludicrous that is philosophically because that’s science’s preferred theory. Or insisting that determinism cannot be true because it would eliminate moral responsibility, no matter what the scientific evidence says. Or saying that science must accept theistic evolution as a scientific theory on par with unguided evolution because it makes sense of religion.

There are, in fact, many people who take both extremes on all sides, either by insisting that the results of their fields should be just accepted by all others or by insisting that anything outside of their field has no impact on it. But they’re both wrong. We can have fields continuous with each other and influencing each other without making them the same field, and anything else is either one of our “isms” or an academic closed-mindedness that won’t help anyone.

Scientism 101: Philosophy as the only way of knowing …

December 30, 2011

The next post in my series on scientism.

One of the more annoying aspects of the whole scientism debate is the assertion that science is in fact the only valid way of knowing. Whether one considers the term “science” to have a narrow or broad definition, to insist that it is somehow appropriate for the term for all valid ways of knowing to be science seems obviously wrong and quite possibly offensive to any other field of endeavour that is not science. This, then, may explain some of the harsh reactions to scientism of that sort. This is made all the worse by the fact that there aren’t any really good arguments for doing so; there’s no reason to take science as that term.

So, in order to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to simply assert that science in any way of taking it should be considered the only way of knowing, I’d like to outline the case for a term that has far better arguments in favour of it being the only valid way of knowing than science: philosophy.

1) Etymological: Now, in general, etymological arguments are really, really bad. But some have raised them for science, using the fact that science means “knowledge” in the Latin (among some other meanings). However, in the Greek philosophy means “love of knowledge, wisdom”, which is its origin. At best, they’d be equal, but I think we can say that a love of knowledge would be more likely to support knowledge-seeking behaviour than simply having knowledge would, and so as a method or way of knowing philosophy has the two required elements: knowledge, and a motivation to acquire knowledge. So if we take this seriously — and, I hasten to repeat, we shouldn’t take etymological arguments seriously — then philosophy wins.

2) Longevity – Philosophy has been around for thousands of years. Science is a relative newcomer at a couple of centuries. It would seem that the field that’s been around longer should get first crack at being considered the best at what it does than the latecomer.

3) Origin: Science was created by philosophy, and philosophical discussions. Philosophy, in fact, has created pretty much every field we’ve ever known, and they’ve grown out of the initial philosophical examinations. Philosophy, however, has never been created by any of the other candidates.

4) History: Historically, science was a part of philosophy, called natural philosophy, before it “broke off on its own”. Thus, it would be not unreasonable to argue that the specific methods of science are, in fact, special cases of philosophical methods, tailored to natural philosophy. It, however, makes little sense to claim that the methods of philosophy are simply scientific methods when what at least used to be considered scientific methods — narrowly construed — were subsets of philosophical methods.

5) Breadth: Looking at history again, every single problem of interest has been and still is of interest to philosophy. Thus, its subject matter covers everything that it could possibly be interesting to know. Traditionally, there have been large areas of knowledge that science has had no interest in, and so it seems a bit odd to claim that the term science should be expanded to include areas that it used to not care about.

6) Success: This is the biggest argument that those who advocate scientism use to justify calling it science: science has been successful. Note, of course, that this argument relies on it being the narrower definition, not the broader one, because all the fields that find knowledge at all would have success in the same way as science would, being science and all. But, anyway, while science can take credit for vast advances in our understanding of the natural world, philosophy can take credit for science itself, and the scientific method. Science succeeds, then, only because philosophy has produced the knowledge it relies on to succeed. And the same can be said about any number of fields. Also, if we know anything about ethics or philosophy of mind or epistemology, it is philosophy that has produced that knowledge. So all the knowledge that science has is owed to the success of philosophy, and philosophy has had successes that science has not even grasped. Philosophy wins.

Now, let me make it clear that I think that arguing for one way of knowing and for whether there should be a broad term called “philosophy” or “science” for what is common to all ways of knowing is ludicrous. However, the purpose of this post is to point out that if you are going to do that it makes far more sense to use “philosophy” as opposed to “science”. That someone would think that “science” is the better term is indeed likely to be engaging in scientism, and in an unreasonable insistence that science — narrowly construed — is the ideal way of knowing and all the others are inferior and subordinate to it. Otherwise, why think that science is the right term? What is it about the term “science” that makes them think that it can in any way stand for all possible valid ways of knowing?

Scientism 101: Broadly Construed.

December 23, 2011

The next post in my series on scientism.

So, there’s been a lot of discussion on scientism going on lately at other sites, and one of them with a very active comment thread is going on at Evolution Blog. And in reading and replying to those comments, I’ve discovered something: I am sick to death of the phrase “broadly construed” and never want to hear it again.

This, of course, started from people like Jerry Coyne and Larry Moran who argued that if we construed the term “science” broadly enough, then it could be seen as being the only valid way of knowing. They use the broad definition to make their claims, and so the standard argument then is that their argument, then, is uncontroversial. I’ll get into that a bit later. But the problem I want to address here is different, and is a matter of argumentation, not content.

See, if you read the comment thread, you’ll see that the phrase “broadly construed” slides into other terms as well. For example, Couchmar comments:

Here is what Pinker says in reply to the question, “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”:

“Yes, if by ‘science’ we mean the entire enterprise of secular reason and knowledge (including history and philosophy), not just people with test tubes and white lab coats.”

V. Stoic: I take this to concern the use of reason, broadly understood.

And eric says:

I guess my only real remaining question is whether you consider it ‘scientism’ when someone claims broad empiricism is the only reliable way of gaining knowledge about the physical world?

The definitions he’s used for this “broader empiricism” are:

But if you’re using one part of your brain to check to see if the other parts of your brain are working in a certain way, how is that not empirical?

Or you can approach the question from the other direction – if its not empirical, that means you aren’t using any physical or chemical process to detect your own brain activity.

None of these, of course, fit in any way the definition of the term “empirical” as it is currently used in “empirical science” or in the “empiricism/rationalism” debate (for both empirical and for reason). The terms simply do not mean that in the debate.

Now, redefining terms isn’t in and of itself bad, nor is broadening them. The problem, though, is that if you look at how these “broader” definitions come about, it’s almost always after a challenge is raised to their argument. The starting point always seems to about science or empiricism or reason as everyone understands it and then when that argument is pushed intellectually the definition gets adapted to try to preserve their statement. Which often results in the statement being preserved, but not the argument. But then they often proceed as if the argument was preserved, when it hasn’t. They adapt the definition, but don’t adapt the argument to the new definition.

But, again, the worst part is that the definition changes only to suit their argument. It doesn’t provide more clarity, and in general no one that they are talking to has any idea what they really mean by the “broader” definition. It’s obfuscation; unintentional obfuscation, perhaps, but still obfuscation.

It also turns the argument into a moving target, because the definition keeps broadening and narrowing as the definition — and the definitions of the terms — keeps shifting in order to defend their position. There’s nothing solid there to latch onto, and so it ends up not being worth considering except to the extent that they think they’re making an important argument.

And that, I think, is the real problem: many of the people making the claim “science is the only valid way of knowing” don’t actually have arguments for it. All they have are definitions and a respect for science, and an understanding that science definitely has produced knowledge. Look over the comment thread and a lot of the posts on the topic and see if there’s an argument for that position beyond defining science and empirical and reason in such a way to hopefully include what they want included and exclude what they want excluded. But without an argument for it, when they are faced with arguments against it all they can do is try to tweak the definition more to make their position self-evident.

Scientism is, in fact, a philosophical claim, and it requires philosophical methods to settle. In philosophy, you do not argue for your position by tweaking definitions until it fits; you tweak arguments until your position becomes obviously correct. I’d like to see arguments for that position, not mere definitional games.

Note that since in a lot of cases I’m wandering into the middle of a debate, this characterization might be seen as unfair. And, I admit, in some cases it might actually be unfair. But I don’t think it so unfair to be a completely inaccurate characterization, nor do I think — given the comment thread and posts cited — that it isn’t good advice to those who want to claim that science is the only valid way of knowing that they might, just might, want to focus more on their arguments than on broadly construing existing definitions. Remember, to broadly construe a definition also requires justification in order for people to accept it, so if all you’re doing is changing the definition it would be a good time to examine why you want to change the definition and what argument you can make to justify making that move.

Scientism 101: Overlapping Magisteria

December 14, 2011

The next post in my series on scientism.

Due, I think, to the influence of the religious component of the debate, often there seems to be an impression that having ways of knowing that overlap in their epistemic domains means something for discussions of ways of knowing. Either people take the NOMA stance and try to push hard for the ways of knowing to not overlap, or there ends up being an implicit comment that if the content of one way of knowing overlaps with another you can decide which way of knowing is better based on how it deals with the shared content, arguing that if, say, science and everyday reasoning overlap in their content then you can say that because of the success of one of them at producing true beliefs that that way of knowing is thereby superior to the other.

For the first complaint, it isn’t hard to see looking only at the ways of knowing that I’ve already identified that often ways of knowing will overlap in their domains. As stated above, science and everyday reasoning often overlap, although their domains are not identical. There are things that everyday reasoning will consider — like, say, opinions and preferences — that science will not address at that level, and in general everyday reasoning will not care about the details of atmoic theory. They do impact each other, though, as a scientific result that sharply contradicts everyday reasoning and experience will have to explain why that is, while everyday reasoning is more than happy to adopt scientific results if it helps it to make better judgements about the world. Additionally, philosophy overlaps with pretty much every single way of knowing, since most of them started out as philosophy, and all — for better or for worse — critically involve concepts at some point. So our existing ways of knowing overlap, and yet in general this does not bother anyone. Phillosophy allows itself to be informed by science when appropriate, science uses the results of mathematics and conceptual analysis when appropriate, and everyday reasoning is happy to accept anyone’s help as long as it isn’t too much trouble. So the idea that ways of knowing must have completely distinct epistemic domains just doesn’t hold; they can indeed overlap and still be different ways of knowing.

The second complaint, I think, starts to walk us towards the real issue of scientism. What does it mean to say that one way of knowing is better or to be preferred to another? In my answer to Larry Moran, I talk about different ways of knowing and argue that there may be cases where you prefer one over another while not preferring either of them overall. For example, science is very good at getting very true beliefs and not committing to a belief until it has a very strong justification. But doing that is slow. For everyday situations, taking the time to do what would really encompass doing a properly skeptical science isn’t feasible, so you weaken the standards of justification a bit and allow yourself to believe earlier, but still keep mechanisms for correction if it goes wrong. It’s only in relation to what I need that we can determine which way of knowing is better for that situation. Philosophy is even slower at everyday beliefs than science, so you aren’t likely to want to use it to determine those all that often, although it can if it wants to.

But you don’t total up errors or point out successes to decide what way of knowing is appropriate for a specific question. You look at the question and decide what way of knowing you want to use for it. So even if ways of knowing overlap in their epistemic domains, you can’t judge them one against the other on any sort of absolute terms. They all, in fact, produce knowledge, and producing knowledge is as good as you can get when it comes to truth.


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