Archive for December, 2011

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?

Hitchens’ Challenge: Why it’s Philosophically Naive …

December 25, 2011

There’s a lot of shots taken at the New or Gnu or whatever they’re calling themselves Atheists for them being philosophically naive. I, in fact, think that that’s often the case with them as well. And all of the recent tributes to Christopher Hitchens have brought up one of his more famous arguments that I think demonstrates this quite well. So, despite the fact that he’s the only one of the Four Horsemen whose seminal work on religion and faith I have not read because for the most part when I read his stuff or listened to him I found his arguments to be more rhetoric than substance, I think I’ll use that argument to demonstrate how there’s more to these sorts of arguments philosophically than might meet the eye, or than you might see by relying on sound bites.

And for those who think that this is somehow mean-spirited given the current situation, I think it can be credibly argued that the best tribute you could make to Hitchens would be to take a run at him. Anyway, I come neither to praise nor bury Hitchens, but simply to talk about something that he talked about.

Anyway, the argument is basically this:

Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.

Now, to start with I think a little disambiguation is required. In order for this to have any real argumentative thrust, it must be the case that Hitchens wants us to name an action or a statement made ethically, in a sense where we can argue that the person is being good or ethical in taking that action or genuinely talking about good or ethical in making that statement. Obviously, we can all do every single action that anyone could do and could say anything that anyone can possibly say. But for it to be interesting and to link up to the charge that it’s used against — that atheists cannot be moral or ethical — it has to be the case that Hitchens is asking us to give an example of something that atheists cannot do ethically, even if they can take the action.

And to start replying to it, we need to look at the two broad categories of theists, who we discover when we look at Euthyphro’s dilemma. And what we have are:

Type 1: What is ethical is what God says is ethical; there is no other objective criteria.

Type 2: There is an objective criteria for what is ethical that is independent of God, but God knows what that criteria is.

We can debate whether or not these stances work or not — I think that both can, although I’m a Type 2 myself and think that the Type 1 case is wrong — but that’s not the point of this post. Taking their actual views and seeing how they’d reply to the challenge is. So, let’s try that, starting with the Type 1s:

H: Name one action that non-believers can’t do ethically.

A: All of them.

See, for Type 1s what makes an action ethical is nothing more than that it was decreed so by God. If you aren’t taking that action because you believe that it was decreed by God, you are not doing it for ethical reasons, according to that view. So atheists would never be acting ethically because they would never have ethical reasons for their actions. And if you don’t take an action for ethical reasons, it isn’t an ethical action. So atheists, then, can ape or imitate ethical behaviour, but could never actually act ethically according to the standards of Type 1 ethics.

Now, someone could say that you just need to take the actions, but don’t need to have ethical reasons for doing so in order to be ethical. The problem is that this leads to nasty conclusions like that if you are intending to kill someone by poisoning their drink but use too little so it sends them to hospital where a tumor is discovered that is treated and so their life is saved when it wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t tried to kill them then that action is ethical. That’s a bit absurd, so only strong consequentialists hold it.

Anyway, Type 1s, then, reply to Hitchens with a reply that reveals that Hitchens doesn’t actually understand their view, and so his challenge to them is almost immediately made moot.

So, what about Type 2s?

H: Name one action that non-believers can’t do ethically.

A: There aren’t any.

H: Ha! So then atheists can be ethical!

A: We’ve never denied that atheists can be moral. We want to know what your justification is for being ethical, though, so we can see if it works and if you really do have an ethical system.

For Type 2s — and, again, I’m a Type 2 — that atheists could act ethically has never been in question. If there is a way to objectively justify ethics independently of what God says, then this just simply follows. What we want, however, is what does underlie your ethical actions. We’re just as interested in the reasons for actions as Type 1s are; we just don’t have a presumed preferred ethical system by definition like Type 1s do. So the challenge from Type 2s to atheists is simply for them to tell us where they are getting their ethics from. We know where Type 1s get it, rightly or wrongly; they get it from their Holy Books. Where atheists get theirs from, however, is an interesting question. And a reply of “We’re humanists!” doesn’t work because we — and, we think, you — don’t know what that means.

So, again, the challenge is made moot. Since Type 2s don’t and can’t insist that atheists cannot be ethical due to the stance Type 2s take towards ethics, failing to “answer” Hitchens’ challenge doesn’t actually prove anything; we still want to know what the ethical justifications atheists are using are, and why they are as good or better than the ones that we are using … even if we get ours from the Bible, say, itself like Type 1s do (for the record, I don’t. The perils of being both a philosopher and a theist [grin]).

So, we can see that once we unpack the relevant philosophical details, the challenge is philosophically naive if you conceive it as an ending instead of merely a starting point. How Type 1s and Type 2s reply is what’s interesting, not what they reply. Once we see the differences in positions and what they mean for the challenge, we can see where the arguments are going and what proof each side has to offer, and who has a burden of proof and who doesn’t.

Note that I’m not saying that all of the replies will meet what I say here. I think that a good many of the normal responders get sucked into the shallow debate and never plumb the philosophical depths. But, to me, this is where the arguments have to go if we take the stances seriously, and unlike some other cases where taking the stances strongly seriously leads to a lack of nuance, here it merely clarifies while leaving lots of room for nuance.

So, then, in my view this sort of analysis could be seen as sophisticated theology, and so the challenge to those who deny that such a thing can exist would be “What’s wrong with this?”.

Wrong or Incompatible?

December 25, 2011

Well, it’s Christmas day, about 7 am here. I don’t have kids who are so incredibly excited to get to opening the presents and am not rushing out to go anywhere, so it’s a good time to do some posting while waiting for the sun to come up and it to warm up so that I can go for a walk later.

Anyway, right now I’d like to look at Jerry Coyne’s latest Quote of the Day. Now, he’s talking about a book of exchanges between Dan Dennett and Alvin Plantinga, and I might be interested in reading it except that it’s a bit short and this line — that Coyne likes — puts me off a bit.

Dennett asks Plantinga to justify why the supernatural being who created and drove the process of evolution couldn’t have been Superman instead of God.

Using Superman — if he meant the character — makes little sense in context of the comic books, so it’s a bad example in that case. If Dennett means some sort of natural being that’s just a really intelligent human-like entity, that would be a better argument … but then I suspect Coyne would not like it as much.

Anyway, the real issues come in, again, when Coyne tries to make an incompatibilist argument. He starts with a quote from Dennett that says this in part:

In fact, my disapproval of the NOMA gambit [Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria”] grows out of the worry that these attempts by well-meaning scientific diplomats do more harm than good, unwittingly convincing many laypeople that scientists will lie through their teeth to get evolution taught in the schools.

Coyne seems to accept and conclude this from that, in part:

Ponder how many accommodationists say that there is no conflict when they believe otherwise in their hearts. After all, many of them (including the three named by Dan) are atheists.

The problem is this: just because you think two fields or ways of knowing or theories are not incompatible does not mean that you think they are correct. Even the strongest form of atheism in and of itself only allows a move to “I think you’re wrong”. The weaker forms don’t even allow that; if you merely lack belief in God or gods, you by definition don’t believe in lack of them either, and so don’t hold the belief that they are necessarily wrong. So, at most, those scientists being atheists means that they think that at least some religions are wrong, not that they think them incompatible with science at a philosophical level. And if they don’t think them incompatible with science at a philosophical level, then they are simply expressing what they believe to be true, and so aren’t lying, despite Dennett’s hints in that direction.

You can, of course, think that things are compatible with science without thinking them right. For example, I totally concede that utilitarianism is compatible with science; I just don’t think it an appropriate moral code and so think it wrong. I also concede that strict materialism about mind is compatible with science — it would, of course, be ludicrous to deny that — but also think it at least incomplete if not, in fact, totally wrong. One can say that science and religion are not incompatible — even using arguments like NOMA — and still think that religions are wrong. For incompatibility, you need a strong notion that you cannot be both a scientist and be religious, at a logical level. Being wrong simply does not warrant that sort of strong notion.

And this, again, reveals the real issue for Coyne. Every single argument he makes ends up being one that says not that religion and science are incompatible, but that religion is wrong. And he really needs to stick to that, since he might actually be able to muster some arguments for that that don’t end up with him entering into a philosophical morass. If he sticks to “These religions are wrong” then he can stick to the facts, pointing out the claims that conflict and asking — hopefully honestly, without having a prejudiced idea that it can’t be done — how they intend to resolve them. Some of them will be easy to resolve, some harder, and some impossible. In some cases, the thing Coyne says are conflicting won’t be actual facts of science, and so the religions can ignore them on that basis.

But at least we’d be focusing on the real issue. No more surveys showing how many scientists think religion wrong as if it proves something philosophically. No more talking about philosophical inconsistencies that he can’t actually prove. No more talk about “ways of knowing” and arguing that science and religion do things differently and so are incompatible in a way that makes philosophy incompatible with science, too. No, what we’d be left with is an actual debate, where science can indeed participate to its fullest degree and where there are still interesting theological and philosophical issues to be addressed.

T’is a dream I have [grin].

Season’s Greetings …

December 25, 2011

I’d like to take this opportunity to send out a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the reader of the blog.

Don’t you mean “the readers”?

No, WordPress still says it’s just pretty much the one.

(Joke stolen unapologetically again from Deadpool).

Santa’s Got Game …

December 24, 2011

Over at Game Guiders there’s a wish list from the contributors for what they want from Santa, including myself.

I really do have that 200 hours to kill, sadly enough.

I like you, but you’re too demanding …

December 23, 2011

So, I’ve been playing Oblivion and Record of Agarest War Zero for the past few weeks, and while I still like the former, the latter is starting to annoy me. I screwed up one of the first influence runs with the girl that I think I’ll like, and now in the first “dungeon” I’m finding that I need to grind to get through the final battle, but I have no idea how strong I need to be and the fights themselves are not quick little ones, but ones with lots of enemies so that I have to a lot of actions before it ends. So, I’d end up in a 2 hour or so run doing nothing but grinding. Even Persona 3 wasn’t that bad.

I would like to see how the story progresses. The game is growing on me. But the tactical combat is annoying me. I don’t want to take the time to play just to do it and it’s annoying enough that I can’t play longer before getting sick of it.

So, I think I’ll put it aside for now, and restart it later. Which means that I need to return to my list of games, because it turns out that I need another game to play for when I don’t quite feel like returning to the game I’m playing. I still have my CoH subscription, so I’ll probably use that for now. I’ll decide around Christmas which of the games on the list is my new lucky game.

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.

Oblivion Oddities …

December 20, 2011

So, I’ve been playing Oblivion for a little bit now, and a couple of odd things have happened:

1) I’ve somehow managed to fall onto the main storyline. While looking for a shop. I feel like Aragorn.

Now, of course, being on the main storyline is not a good thing, but fortunately after taking my two hapless charges to some mountain temple, they then said that I should go off alone to find some important MacGuffin that the more competent of them had lost. At which point, I wandered into the nearest city and started investigating vampires and tried to join the local guilds. That’s better.

2) My female Breton … doesn’t wear pants. I did this by accident in the early stages of the game — I took off all the armour and equipped better chest armour, but forgot that that wasn’t full armour, and didn’t notice until I figured out how to look at her full figure — and by the time I figured it out decided that I didn’t like how the skirts looked on her, and thought the pantsless look looked more adventurer like. I’ve got her now in a nice little black number that does include a skirt, but when I go back out into the world away will go her pants.

I wonder if that will impact how people react to the character …

But I did manage to play it for about 2 hours today without getting bored. That’s progress. It’s nothing like the all-day sessions of the Personas I’ve done, but then the Personas are much better games [grin].

Comparative Review: MvC3 vs MKvDCU vs XM:ND

December 19, 2011

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

I found Marvel vs Capcom 3 to be very disappointing. It should have done better than this.