Scientism: Recap

So scientism has come up again. Jerry Coyne references a post that references a paper talking about how opponents of scientism are attacking a view of it that is uncommon, with the main point one that I and most other opponents have already come across: most proponents of scientism mean science interpreted broadly, and not narrowly limited to just the natural sciences. Yes, most people do define science broadly, but that usually doesn’t help them as much as they might think.

I’ll be looking at the paper in-depth later. Right now, I want to summarize a couple of points about scientism to get a starting point from which to talk about it.

The issue with broadening the definition of science to include other things is that many of those who advocate for that want to capture at least part of philosophy in their definition of science, because they find some of it useful and don’t want to lose it. But this leads to an issue: in order for the broadening to work, they need to come up with a definition of science that makes it so that scientism is valid — and so they can include philosophy in science for their purposes — but that including science under philosophy — and so advocating for philosophism — isn’t at least equally if not more valid. The problem is that the instant we decide that we can include philosophy and science under the same umbrella, we are faced with the fact that science originally was a sub-field of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Philosophy was willing to let it go off on its own when it decided to focus on a subset of problems that weren’t as interesting philosophically, but if science is going to use its success at solving those problems to insist that philosophy should really be considered a sub-field of it then philosophy may well want to reassert its claim there. This, then would be a challenge for the advocates of scientism to overcome, as they’d have to make philosophy different enough from science so that science couldn’t come under it but find a way to capture everything in philosophy that “works” nonetheless and separate that from the rest of it.

Pondering this, we can see how this reveals a divide in scientism which might be more responsible for the confusions around scientism rather than a mere focus on natural sciences. I’ve thrown out the idea of philosophism before and have made the point that science came from philosophy, and some advocates for scientism have been receptive to the idea. They’ve replied that it doesn’t really matter what the one great way of knowing gets called, as long as we know that we have only one way to really get knowledge (Jason Rosenhouse is the one I most remember). While they presented my argument as being mere semantics, it’s an important distinction though because at least some advocates of scientism won’t accept that (Coel, who used to read and sometimes comment here, is an example of that sort). So it’s not a mere semantic argument, as it reveals a deep divide among those who advocate for scientism.

The reason for the divide is this: those who accepted the idea of philosophism tended to be atheists who weren’t overly concerned about coming up with one true or best way of knowing, but instead mostly wanted to exclude some things as ways to get knowledge. For those atheists, it was mainly faith (and perhaps theology if they could manage it). So they weren’t overly concerned with ensuring that other fields did things the “scientific” way, but instead with eliminating the things that they think pretend to give knowledge while they in fact do no such thing. You could also see this in reactions to things like pseudoscience, as they were trying very hard to find a way to filter out the things that some people tried to use as a way of getting knowledge that they thought in no way produced knowledge.

Those who didn’t were those who held what we could call in philosophy the “naturalistic” position (although they were usually completely unaware of that movement or the reasons it wasn’t adopted by philosophy), advocating for the methods of science to be used as they had proven the most successful, to their minds, and so fields that weren’t using them were at risk, at least, of spinning their wheels. They won’t accept “philosophism” because for them philosophy is a prime example of the problem, as it doesn’t do things the “scientific” way and has made little progress in solving its problems. This was usually accompanied by pointing out that for things like morality when science did get involved it seemed to be solving all those problems — again, to their minds — and so it was proving that their method was right. Of course, those better versed in philosophy were aware that the new “solutions” were neither new nor solutions, but for these people it’s more about using the right methodology rather than about eliminating the things that can’t produce knowledge.

In the paper, the authors talk about narrow and broad definitions, and also about whether they think that science is the only way to get knowledge or the best way. The former tended to be broad, but also held that science was the only way to get knowledge, so that they can say that anything outside of it cannot produce knowledge and so can eliminate the things they want to eliminate. The latter position tends to be broad and can accept a position that science is merely the best way to produce knowledge. Both positions, though, since they are broadening the definition of science need to come up with one that accepts the fields and methodologies they believe work while filtering out the ones that they don’t think work. And what we will see in the paper is that the authors are quite careful to never actually do that.


6 Responses to “Scientism: Recap”

  1. Ester Says:

    You said:
    “This was usually accompanied by pointing out that for things like morality when science did get involved it seemed to be solving all those problems — again, to their minds — and so it was proving that their method was right. Of course, those better versed in philosophy were aware that the new “solutions” were neither new nor solutions, but for these people it’s more about using the right methodology rather than about eliminating the things that can’t produce knowledge.”

    I’m not all that well versed in philosophy, unfortunately. Would you mind elaborating what you’re talking about here? It sounds intriguing…

    Thank you!

    • verbosestoic Says:

      The most common comment I’ve made on these issues is that they seem to think that philosophy rejected the scientific-minded solutions because they used that icky empirical stuff, when the real reason they rejected it was because they tried it and it didn’t work. Philosophy had tried many times to use empirical or scientific methods for morality and they all ended up with serious issues, which caused them to abandon it. For the most part, the big thing that empirical/scientific solutions run into is making the solutions normative rather than merely descriptive. Some instead adopt some form of relativism, but all of those run into issues that philosophy has been outlining for hundreds of years.

      For some specific examples, Sam Harris tried to come up with one in “The Moral Landscape”, but his view is essentially Utilitarianism and has the same flaws (and he seems to fail to recognize that it has similar flaws). Some (like Coel whom I’ve talked about before) try to use evolution but we’ve already tried that and it runs into issues, at a minimum, with what happens when evolution would suggest something that we think morally heinous (for example, what if evolution suggested that rape was moral or ideal from the standpoint of evolution? Surely we wouldn’t take evolution’s suggestion as to what is moral!). And relativists (again, like Coel) always run into the issue that they still want to use moral statements as meaningful criticisms of other people, which doesn’t work out with relativism.

      There’s a lot more, but in general most of these scientific solutions have not come up with anything incredibly novel. And philosophers in general have LEAPED at any suggestion from science that might solve their problems in a host of fields from morality to epistemology to philosophy of mind. Many have in fact become jaded not because they hate science, but because science has so often promised much and failed to deliver. As another example in an unrelated field (to morality) the scientific attempts to show how you can get something from nothing always garnered attention, but you could sense the disappointment when it turned out that all they were really doing was inventing a — possibly interesting — something to do the work while castigating philosophers for overcomplicating things. Yes, philosophers have known for ages that a solution to the something from nothing problem is to invent a necessary something to fit in that gap. That’s in no way novel, and deciding exactly what that thing has to be is more complicated than they think.

      I hope that fills in some of the gaps.

  2. Tom Says:

    Not sure if you’ve read Feser’s review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact, which deals with Coyne’s take on ‘scientism’. He really ends up roasting him, haha…

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I also deal with the book and the issues around it, although less pointing out inconsistencies and more delving into the issues. However, what Feser points out is pretty much Coyne’s standard technique as a philosophical amateur: he adjusts his positions to make them more credible without thinking about how it impacts the rest of his argument. That explains the flip-flopping on philosophy as a way of knowing.

  3. Scientism: How Not to Criticise Scientism | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] a recap on issues around scientism last week, let me turn my attention to the paper on scientism that is entitled “How Not to Criticise […]

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