Scientism 101: Overlapping Magisteria

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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