“Doctor Co-oyne, You’ve Done it Again!”

So, Jerry Coyne has returned to the “scientism” debate, replying to comments by Philip Kitcher about Coyne’s comments. One of the very first things Kitcher says is that he isn’t trying to defend religion as a way of knowing, and yet Coyne spends much time talking about religion and thus not addressing Kitcher. Thus, he reminds me of Durkon in this “Order of the Stick” comic: “I jes hate them religions so” …

Anyway, what he does yet again is argue about how the humanities don’t really produce “knowledge” in the scientific sense based on a proposition that … could only be known in the humanities sense and not the scientific sense:

In the opening example of his TNR essay, Philip uses the bombing of Dresden as an example of how the humanities (moral philosophy) lead to some kind of “knowledge.” But, I submit, realizing that bombing Dresden was immoral is not knowledge in any scientific sense (or even the car-mechanic sense), but a subjective judgment. Sam Harris nonwithstanding, I don’t think there’s any such thing as an objective morality: there are only things that conform to a morality that rests on subjective values (in Sam’s case, it is good to maximize well being). So no, it was not objectively immoral to bomb Dresden: it was immoral if you accept the premise—as nearly all of us do—that it is usually wrong to inflict unnecessary death and injury on innocent civilians in wartime (there is still the question of the inevitable and unplanned collateral damage that occurs in any war).

He bases his rejection of the bombing of Dresden being something that we “know” is morally wrong based on his rejection of moral objectivism. He thinks that all morality is subjective. But, does he know that? If he knows it, then how did he come to know it? Surely it was through philosophical work on morality, or at least considerations that would look a lot like it. But that would be the sort of thing that he claims doesn’t produce “knowledge”, and so he couldn’t know it. Alternatively, he could reject that he “knows” that, but only believes it or thinks it plausible. But if he doesn’t “know” that to be the case, it seems to be a fairly weak basis for his claim that Kitcher’s claim is not getting us an objective truth, or fact, and therefore that it isn’t getting us knowledge. And this is putting aside the discussion of whether we can have subjective knowledge.

So, again, Positivist Petard: your proposition that moral philosophy does not produce “knowledge” relies on a proposition that if it can be known at all can only be known through moral philosophy, so you can’t know that proposition and so you can’t know that moral philosophy does not produce “knowledge”.

Coyne also makes a distinction between types of “knowledge” in a few places:

But, I submit, realizing that bombing Dresden was immoral is not knowledge in any scientific sense …

Morality is not the same thing as the knowledge that science produces …

This is in response to Kitcher’s comments about the humanities giving us conceptual knowledge, which Coyne doesn’t really think is knowledge:

But so what? Those ruminations must still be tested by empirical observation, reason, and experiment. “Concept formation” is not a way of knowing, but a way of stimulating the confection of hypotheses. Those hypotheses become knowledge only when one applies the methods of science or secular reason.

So, yes, Coyne is exactly right that conceptual knowledge is not really the sort of knowledge that science — narrowly construed — provides, and iti s indeed true that that sort of knowledge only does stimulate the confection of hypotheses for science narrowly defined. So, yes, it can indeed be said that humanities like philosophy produce a different type of knowledge than science does, where philosophy produces conceptual knowledge and science produces what we can call “instantial knowledge”, knowledge about the specific instances of concepts in this world. But both of these are still knowledge. There is absolutely no reason to claim that conceptual knowledge is not, in fact, knowledge. It’s not scientific knowledge, but it’s still knowledge. Which leads to Coyne’s problems with the term scientism:

I’d prefer to see the word “scientism” quietly shelved, replaced by more specific charges like “scientists sometimes overreach themselves” or “scientists denigrate the value of literature.” Those, at least, are charges that can be documented and discussed using evidence. The general charge of “scientism,” slippery of definition, can’t be. And worst of all, that charge is leveled most often by religious people, whose own methods of knowing are wholly incapable of conveying truth. But that is my issue, not Philip’s.

Well, I defined the types of scientism here, in my series on Scientism. I don’t think these are in any way “slippery”, and none of these are the charges Coyne says are the charges he’d prefer. And as I don’t consider religion a way of knowing, it’s clearly a non-religious exception. And yet we can see that Coyne’s “This is not scientific knowledge” fits my definition of scientism:

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.

I can only imply 2.1 from his comments about how morality can be useful, but his argument is explicitly 2.2: if it’s not empirical/testable in that way, it isn’t really knowledge because it isn’t the sort of thing that science produces. Thus, Coyne is engaging in scientism in his reply … no slipperiness involved.


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