Scientism: How Not to Criticise Scientism

After 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 Scientism”. From the Abstract, they make their main goal clear:

This paper argues that the main global critiques of scientism lose their
punch because they rely on an uncharitable definition of their target. It focuses on
epistemological scientism and divides it into four categories in terms of how strong
(science is the only source of knowledge) or weak (science is the best source of
knowledge) and how narrow (only natural sciences) or broad (all sciences or at least
not only the natural sciences) they are.

So, essentially, they are going to argue that most criticisms focus on narrow-strong scientism and thus their arguments don’t work for the other forms of scientism.

There are some main issues here. The first is that they seem to be so focused on the definitions that they ignore that the scientism debate is not actually happening in a vacuum. The proponents of scientism that the authors want to defend are not just making broad statements about what scientism is, but are also making arguments about what that means for other fields and other arguments. Arguably, the less philosophical ones are in fact driven towards advocating for and accepting scientism because their positions on other topics leads them there as opposed to the other way around. And so in general we aren’t just having a philosophical discussion over what the best methods for gaining knowledge is or if the methods of science should be used in other fields or can be useful for them. That was already done, with the movement towards naturalism in philosophy, where we asked if we could use the methods that were at least epitomized and idealized by the natural sciences to solve some tricky philosophical problems. And while some philosophers do still advocate for more scientific or empirical approaches, the general consensus is that science is not as useful for those problems as we might have hoped, often merely reinventing the wheel or else actually coming up with novel solutions that had unfortunately fairly clear issues.

No, the main debate over scientism seems to coalesce around two main arguments, as noted in my post last week. The first is an attempt to filter out some methodologies as not being valid epistemically because they aren’t science. The second is an attempt to bring the methods of science over to other fields, which thus has to rely on an argument that the methods of science are epistemically valid and more successful than the alternatives, which is obviously usually justified by appealing to the success of the natural sciences. The thing about both options is that both are far more attached to the natural sciences than they’d like. The latter is more explicit — appealing to their success to justify their demand for other fields to use the same approach — but the former has it as well, since one of the easiest ways to filter out things like faith or, as mentioned later in the paper, pure intuition is to point out how their methods differ from the natural sciences and do so by ignoring the elements that made the natural sciences more successful.

So, from here, we can see the risks in the approach of the paper, which is to move away from narrow and strong conceptions to broad and weak conceptions. If we make the definition of science too broad, then it includes too many things for the definition to be useful. For people advocating for the former position above, this risks including the very things they want to exclude or including things that work in pretty much the same way as the things they want to exclude, making the exclusions arbitrary. For the latter position above, if things like, say, philosophy are included in science then advocating for philosophy to use the methods of science instead of what it’s currently using is nonsensical, as its methods would already count as scientific by definition. The same thing applies to moving towards a weaker position, where science is not seen as the only method, but merely the best one. For the former position, they would no longer be able to exclude things simply because they aren’t sufficiently scientific; it would be possible for something to not be science and yet produce knowledge. The latter position has less issues as it can still advocate for the methods of science to be used because they’d be better at producing knowledge in those cases, but then it would require a very clear and distinct definition of what it would mean for science to be “the best”. If science could be the best overall but be poor in certain situations — for example, being slow when compared to everyday reasoning — then in every specific circumstance we’d have to debate whether the methods of science actually are the best for this case, which then makes scientism as a philosophical position somewhat meaningless (as it would boil down to “Use scientific methods when scientific methods are the best ones to use”, which almost everyone thinks eye-rollingly obvious).

Trying to advocate for both broad and weak conceptions at the same time seems like madness.

And unfortunately the authors seem to be focusing more on finding actual people who hold all the various positions by bringing out some quotes from them rather than on defining exactly what the positions entail. How broad can scientism be before it becomes meaningless? How weak can it be before it becomes useless? There’s a lot of time spent on showing how common counters don’t apply to the other positions, but little on showing how those positions can be used to say anything meaningful about any real questions. It thus seems to be doing this only to rescue the concept or term and not to rescue the implications that most of its proponents rely on to make the arguments that they really care about, making us wonder why we’d even care about it and why we’d even bother making up a term for this (and, in line with my post last week, wondering why it’s “scientism” and not “philosophism”).

There’s a little bit more on this later, but for now let me move on to directly responding to the elements of the paper. The first thing they try to address is the uncharitable definition of scientism, and say this:

Hence, scientism is often considered to amount to unwarranted or unjustified trust in natural science in some way.

They try to refute that by pointing to people accepting it as a badge of honour:

Despite the prevalence of the disparaging definitions of scientism, some have started to endorse the term as a badge of honour (see, e.g., Rosenberg 2012; Ross, Ladyman, and Spurrett 2007). This would not be intelligible without a more neutral definition of scientism. It is nonsensical to think that someone would declare: “According to the view I defend, the proper limits of science should be exceeded.” For instance, Peter Atkins has, instead of proclaiming overblown faith in science, merely claimed that “science is the best procedure yet discovered for exposing fundamental truths about the world” (1995, 97, italics added). It is along these lines that a more fruitful definition of scientism lies.

The problem is that from what I have seen those disparaging definitions are less definitions but more criticisms of the approaches of those who advocate for scientism. They are not explicitly saying that scientism is defined as exceeding the limits of science, but that the philosophical position of scientism entails exceeding the limits of science. The advocates trust the idealized methods of the natural sciences too much in that they think that it can solve all problems, even those that don’t fit into the sorts of problems that they have traditionally been able to address. This is what allows people to embrace it, usually with comments that the problem is not with what science can do, but with people in the other fields wanting to be “protectionist” and not allow others to play in their bailiwicks, even if it would be better for the field. Thus the debate over whether science can indeed actually solve those problems or not, which gets into what it means for something to be science, which then gets into discussions over just what is included in science — the issue over whether scientism can accept a broad definition of science without becoming meaningless — and all sorts of other headaches. All of which are completely ignored in the paper.

Even their “weak” statement can be problematic, depending on what it meant by “fundamental truth”. That would include questions like whether or not there really is an external world and whether our senses can access it, and commonly the natural sciences have also been empirical sciences which are clearly incapable of asking that sort of question. I would again ask why philosophy wouldn’t get that nod since it can use the methods of empirical science and non-empirical methods. Since it explicitly allows itself to do everything, why are we saying that science is the best at this when, at best, it’s had great success in a relatively narrow field?

I will skip the distinctions of narrow-broad and strong-weak since I’ve already talked about them, and will skip the lists of people who hold those positions because I can accept that people hold the positions, and am not particularly interested in that. So after skipping a couple of pages, I’ll move on to their addressing what they say are the most common objections to scientism that these distinctions rule out.

But before I get into them, I have to note that they don’t, in fact, actually address the most common argument against scientism, but instead address arguments that are special cases of that main argument. The main argument against scientism is this: there are propositions that we could in principle come to know the truth of that we could not know the truth of using science. This would then cut across pretty much all conceptions: there is no meaningful notion of scientism where there can be important propositions that we couldn’t know through science. And in general attempts to broaden or weaken scientism are usually responses to these sorts of objections, allowing for the fields that could actually produce that knowledge to be part of science or to try to claim that not knowing some things still means that science is the best at producing knowledge (somehow). Later in the paper, they try to argue against this idea that these distinctions are only made to make scientism unassailable:

Here, a worry might arise. Have we merely diluted scientism in order to evade the most direct objections to it? This is not so. This kind of scientism already has its supporters, as we demonstrated with quotations in section 2. Some proponents of scientism, like Quine and Dawkins, for
instance, are open to the idea that even philosophy can be among the sciences (Quine 1981, 85; 1995, 49; Dawkins and Law 2013, at 39 min. 50 sec.).

The problem with this response is that it ignores that we have been in a relatively long-standing debate, and that other than Quine his supporter is a non-philosopher, Dawkins, and non-philosophers are known for doing precisely what they are accused of: redefining positions to make them unassailable while damaging their own positions. On top of that, it’s a rather weak broadening to say that they are open to the idea of philosophy being science, which really smacks of people complaining that they are saying that philosophy can’t produce knowledge and them broadening the definition to include that. Without a principled reason for extending science to include other things and a clearly defined criteria for what is or isn’t included, the accusation of redefining scientism to avoid problems is still a live one.

So the main objection is this: can the proponents of scientism handle cases where it seems like the conception of science that they most rely on cannot answer certain questions that we think can be answered without arbitrarily insisting that the field that can answer that was just science all along? Nothing in this paper addresses that, as it is focused on simply redefining the term “science” without ever giving any real principled argument for why that redefinition is valid. And we must keep in mind that to do that, the advocate for scientism has to be able to avoid the charge that we should be talking about philosophism instead, which later when they give their only criteria for something being included in science they will fail miserably at.

But on to the first objection to scientism they address:

Due to such dependencies, it is insisted that the proponents of scientism are forced to face the following dilemma:
1. The proponent of scientism has to either reject or accept non- scientific sources of belief, such as senses or memory.
2. If the non-scientific sources of belief are rejected, then all scientific inquiry is rendered unjustified, because science necessarily presupposes them.
3. If they are accepted, then the proponent of scientism has to accept non-scientific sources of belief as justified.
4. Thus, the proponent of scientism has either to reject all scientific inquiry as unjustified or to dilute it in the way that would render the thesis of scientism impotent, because science would encompass all sorts of non-scientific grounds of knowledge.

To put this more clearly, science has to rely on things to work that are not themselves scientific. Do those things produce knowledge? If they don’t, then science would be basing its knowledge on things that don’t produce knowledge. If they do, then it seems that the fundamentals of our knowledge are not science. And if advocates for scientism accept the latter and instead argue that those things are forms of science as well, then science would include all possible sources of knowledge by definition, which is not only an uninteresting position, but one that is unscientific as well (as it would be coming to knowledge not by testing hypotheses, but by merely stipulating what is or isn’t true, which is one of the things that science rejected from philosophy).

I’m not going to quote it because it gets a little rambling about specific instances, but it seems to me that the meat of their counter is that science could accept that these things don’t produce knowledge itself but that when the methods of science are applied you can get knowledge using them (this would be the takeaway from the water filtration analogy). This seems fairly reasonable to me. However, the problem is with the examples of the senses or memory, because to make that move would be to insist that those things don’t really produce knowledge, which would mean that if I’m walking around and looking at things I couldn’t know that my sense perceptions were true without applying the methods of science to them (whatever those are). This does not seem at all credible. We can accept that science is more reliable than mere sense perceptions, but not that we don’t know anything that we merely perceive and don’t run through science. And if merely looking at something is science, then the view seems meaningless. About the only move they can make in line with their definitions is to weaken it, but since most of our knowledge of the external world comes from sense data it would be difficult to say that science is the “best” way to produce knowledge since it doesn’t produce most of our actual knowledge. To get around this would require a clear definition of what it means to be the best method for producing knowledge … which the authors, again never actually provide.

The second objection is the more classic one that defeated logical positivism: you can’t justify scientism with science by definition, and so scientism is self-defeating, as it can’t justify itself. They are somewhat right to note that a weak position isn’t that vulnerable to that objection:

Remember that weak scientism merely declares that science is the best way of obtaining knowledge—it does not have to be the only one. This enables the advocate of scientism to use methods like common sense for justifying her endorsement of scientism. Naturally, it is still required
that her methods are not in contradiction to scientific inquiry, even if they would not for some reason deserve to be called science.

While that might get around the strict self-defeating argument, it’s still a problem for scientism, because how can we reasonably say that science is the best method for producing knowledge when it can’t justify the critically important claim that it itself is true? If any advocate for scientism wanted to make this move, they’d be shooting themselves in the foot. Sure, it’s not self-defeating, but you’d be offloading a critical question to other fields because you admit that science itself can’t answer it. That’s hardly a reason to think that science is the best method for producing knowledge.

They also do try to make it a scientific hypothesis, even if it would be difficult for science to solve it. But this is not enough, because again if such a critical question can be solved easier using another method then in what sense is science the best as opposed to one among many? So weakening the position to merely claiming science is the best method runs into the problem that the advocate of scientism needs to clearly define what it means to be the best method, and not in a way that merely defines that as science by fiat, and also in a way that is not arbitrary. Again, the authors don’t actually do that in this paper.

They then essentially try to argue that if a method was found that produced knowledge better than the ones that science was using, science would incorporate them into science:

When examining the actual enterprise of science, in all its variety, the only epistemic boundary condition or methodological constraint seems to be epistemic opportunism: to use the practices that evaluably work for obtaining reliable knowledge and abandon those that do not.

One should note that, assuming knowledge has to be reliable, epistemic opportunism in itself already validates scientism. If science is epistemically opportunist in the way presented above, it directly follows that science is the best and only way of forming evaluably reliable knowledge. That
is, if one accepts that science uses or should use the methods that evaluably work for obtaining reliable knowledge, then already by definition science is the only practice for obtaining evaluable reliable knowledge. This is the thesis of strong scientism from which the weak version, of course, fol-
lows. In fact, given epistemic opportunism, the distinction between weak and strong scientism effectively evaporates, since the only non-scientific methods are the ones that do not produce any evaluably reliable knowledge. Given epistemic opportunism, Peels is then wrong in claiming that
scientism cannot be justified with an a priori argument. If the epistemic opportunism of science is accepted, then the idea that science is the only reliable source of knowledge can follow by logical inference alone.

Putting aside that this would reduce scientism to “the best methods for producing knowledge are by definition the best methods for producing knowledge”, this runs headlong into the problem of “philosophism”. Given that philosophy has an entire field dedicated to epistemology and figuring out what the best methods are for gaining knowledge in both its and all other fields and science does not, it really seems like a field that has this as its main defining feature such that we can call anything that does that or is one of those methods by its name should be named philosophy rather than science. But it gets worse, because while as noted philosophy has indeed made a long practice of seeking out and incorporating new methods into itself as new problems and new approaches became available and established — and, as noted at the top, even doing that with the formal sciences with naturalism — science has rarely if ever done this. In fact, it can be easily argued that the reason for science’s relative success at producing knowledge — in terms of amount, at least — follows from science applying its method to any problem it came across and not bothering to stop to ask whether that method was applicable or not. Such questions were usually relegated to Philosophy of Science. So how does it make sense to define science by an attribute that the idealized natural sciences don’t seem to have?

And that’s the problem here. To avoid the objection, they need to insist that science is characterized by epistemic opportunism and so will incorporate all methods that produce knowledge reliably. But this better fits philosophy rather than science, leading to two issues. The first is the somewhat facetious one that it’s arrogant for science to incorporate philosophy into itself when it spawned from philosophy in the first place. The second is that this would make nonsensical all demands for philosophers to use “science” to solve philosophical problems, as philosophy would already be science and so at a minimum they’d have to narrow the definitions again to have that make sense. Either way, this isn’t a good way for the advocates of scientism to go.

You can indeed broaden or weaken the definition of scientism to avoid some of the main objections. The problem with doing so is that you often make scientism and the relevant debates around scientism either meaningless or nonsensical, and the paper has not shown how to avoid those issues. So perhaps my response here should be considered a note on how to argue for scientism: if you are going to argue for scientism, start with a clear and non-arbitrary definition of science so that we can see what is included, what is excluded, and how successful or reliable science is when we count everything that’s included and if there are reliable alternatives when we exclude the things that are excluded. This paper does not even come close to doing that, and I suspect that anyone who did try to do that would find that scientism isn’t as appealing a position as they hoped it would be.


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