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

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.


4 Responses to “Those who do not study philosophy are doomed to repeat it …”

  1. Christopher Says:

    Reblogged this on Prepared for the Worst and commented:
    Brilliant. I wish I could have thought of this myself.

  2. Jerry Coyne and the “Postivist Petard” « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] 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 […]

  3. jane Says:

    Was the antepenultimate paragraph meant to say: “Coyne could deny this by arguing that skepticism is NOT a key part of science”? Its meaning is not clear to me as written. (Great essay, and I love the term “positivist petard”!)

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