Jerry Coyne and the “Postivist Petard”

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.


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.


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