Posts Tagged ‘Scientism 101’

Scientism: How Not to Criticise Scientism

August 10, 2020

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.

Scientism: Recap

August 3, 2020

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.

The Siren Song of Mad Science

July 8, 2015

The fourth essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “The Siren Song of Mad Science” by Kirby Arinder and Joseph Milton. This essay is a very stylistic description of a villain advocating for mad science and trying to describe and determine what one has to do or what one has to believe in order to be a mad scientist. Unfortunately, the style gets in the way of it making an actual point, as it is difficult to glean from it what point they are attempting to make. Presumably, it’s something about science and the scientific method, though, but what precise point seems to be quite obscured by the style.

That being said, I think it is mainly about the idea that science is perceived as being a valueless assessment of the data, and letting the data lead you to the right conclusion, because it and it alone will, in fact, always do so. As the authors describe this as being the main mistake that mad scientists do that makes them, in fact, mad scientists, it seems reasonable that they think this not only a bad way to go, but also that it is based on a gravely mistaken idea of science. As they point out, the data does not lead incontrovertibly to any particular conclusion. Even assessments like preferring one theory to another because it is simpler or because it is more useful to use — a common assessment people like Jerry Coyne use for mathematics and philosophy — is in fact a value judgement. They argue, I think, that if you try to pretend that there are no value judgements in science and that the data leads to the one incontrovertible solution, you’ll end up choosing based on hidden values whenever you have to decide which theory to accept in those cases where the data doesn’t, in fact, settle the question, and those values will almost always be with theory that you prefer to be correct.

It would be too much to conclude — and I think they understand this — that the data itself is totally neutral when it comes to which theories are to be preferred and which aren’t. The data will certainly prune away certain theories that simply don’t make sense given the data or evidence we have. Certainly, we can adapt theories to conform to the evidence and keep on going, but at least certain theories — ie the unadapted ones — will have to be tossed and at some point you end up having to change the theory so much that it isn’t recognizable as the same theory any more; you’re using the same name but the theory is nothing like the original theory. However, it is also clear that a lot of the settled debates in science are not, in fact, that settled, or were not that settled by the evidence, and also that most of those who insist that the evidence settles everything also smuggle in these hidden value judgements, or as I like to call them these hidden philosophical commitments. Appeals to parsimony and Occam’s Razor are, if you understand what they mean, explicit recognitions that the data and evidence isn’t settling the question, as they only apply when two or more theories, in fact, explain equally well the same data. Appeals to prediction and testability are useful only because given these things it is easier for us to demonstrate that the theory is incorrect, but that hardly means that it is more likely to be right. Appealing to the theory explaining things across a broader domain is a subset of the “utility” and/or “testability” angles, and doesn’t mean that it supports the evidence in the specific domain better than the other theories do. So, even when we look at fundamental components of the scientific method, we can see that a lot of them violate the skeptical ideal that we should apportion our beliefs based on the evidence, as the evidence is not, in fact, always so accommodating and yet science has found ways to buttress their beliefs despite the evidence not, itself, being able to justify that confidence that theory A is right and theory B is wrong.

This, I think, underlies a lot of the fights between skeptics and scientismists on the one hand and theists and philosophers on the other. Scientismists and skeptics both insist that they are following the evidence, and that we ought to follow the evidence. But they include as part of their assessment of the strength of the evidence these philosophical and methodological commitments. However, these commitments are merely their own commitments, and so no one else need accept them. Thus, these commitments need to be justified, and most of them simply cannot do it. We can see how this plays out whenever anyone does challenge them. When we see skeptics and scientismists dismissing, say, theism on the basis of the evidence, and then when pushed on the evidence appealing to naturalism or parsimony to justify it being the only rational position, at that point they have moved from basing their preference solely on the evidence to bringing in philosophical commitments. When you challenge the commitments — as I often do for both naturalism and parsimony — they often retreat to weak inductive arguments and an insistence that this is what it means to be rational, or even directly to the whole “Science works!” counter. But all of these are philosophical commitments, not arguments based on evidence. Even appealing to science’s success doesn’t work unless this is a scientific question and they themselves know how they’d test the proposition.

This also applies to appeals to science to settle philosophical questions, like “How can something come from nothing?” and “Do we have free will?”. Typically, the philosophers don’t dispute the scientific evidence. They simply dispute that it does support the contention as strongly as the scientismists think it does. That many scientismists reply with “You just don’t want to admit that we’ve solved your problem!” when the philosophers a) have already thought of that solution and b) can point out why it isn’t one can be easily explained by the scientists not understanding where the demarcation line is between direct scientific questions and questions of other fields, like every day reasoning, philosophy, mathematics, and so on, and so pushing philosophical commitments as if they are entailed by the data instead of being used to filter theories in light of inconclusive data.

In fact, if people like Jerry Coyne want a definition of scientism, that would be it: attempting to apply scientific commitments beyond the demarcation point between science and another field without demonstrating that those commitments apply to that field. And yes, we can have religionism and philosophism as well, and all are equally bad.

Pinker on Scientism …

August 8, 2013

So, Stephen Pinker has decided to take on scientism, in an article where he implores those in the humanities to not consider science an enemy. However, as I argued through my Scientism 101 series, most of the humanities don’t consider science an enemy, and are often more than happy to consider its input if they think it will help them solve their problems. Philosophy, for example, has a long history of trying to integrate science and its successes into its own methodology … with at best mixed results. For the most part, when philosophers say “Science isn’t going to help here” they aren’t saying that because they’re afraid of science encroaching on their field, but instead because they’ve looked at what science can bring to the table and discovered that it really can’t being much. And in pretty much all the fields where science could have any bearing, the question of whether or not science could help us solve the problems keeps getting raised … by philosophers. While one can argue that religion tends to treat science like an enemy, it’s hard to see how philosophy and most of the humanities treat it that way.

But this strikes at one of the major issues with Pinker’s essay. He starts with this:

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

So who were these “scientists”?

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith— …

It’s very interesting to call these thinkers “scientists”, considering that of those about the only one that you might find talked about at all in any course under the Faculty of Science at most universities is Descartes … and that would be for his mathematics, mostly. All of these thinkers and those great and important thoughts that Pinker mentions are covered in … philosophy courses. You won’t get through Philosophy 101 without hearing a lot about Descartes, and you’ll probably at least get Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Kant there as well. When you start talking about ethics, you’ll hear about Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Kant. There are entire graduate level courses in philosophy dedicated to Spinoza and Leibniz. Smith, assuming that I’m thinking of the right one, gets talked about in economics and poltical science courses. These “scientists” that Pinker talks about are people who are major figures in the humanities, but are never or rarely talked about in formal science courses. The humanities revere them and think of them as important, while the sciences mostly ignore them. So how in the world can you justify calling them scientists? It would be like treating Newton as primarily a philosopher even though his philosophical work is mostly ignored in philosophy and his actual scientific work is fundamental to science and taught in introductory science courses. There is no reason to treat these thinkers as scientists and not philosophers.

That’s a big issue in Pinker’s essay: while he spends a lot of time talking about the impact of science on religion and how the humanities can use science to get past that, he tends to completely ignore the actual humanities in those discussions … and yet he wants to claim that science will not displace the humanities or subsume them under science, but that instead science will simply help. To that end, focusing more on what the humanities bring to the table, demonstrating that he understands what they can bring to the table and the limits to what science itself can do. He handwaves at that at times, but the fact that the humanities themselves get mostly ignored and that some of the things he says are flat-out ignorant of the history of the questions and fields he presents means that his essay fails to hit the point; he demonstrates the problems of scientism while attempt to demonstrate that there are no such problems.

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.”

But the reason that they are accused of that is, generally, because they are guilty of it. Jerry Coyne, for example, insists that the world is deterministic and that this means that there is no free will, and he opposes compatibilists who are trying to bridge the two and preserve an interesting notion of free will, and he isn’t alone. We do see a lot of reductionism, particularly in philosophy of mind. And the series on scientism referenced above has to deal with people who advocate positivist positions. Add in that in that series I outlined what I considered scientism and demonstrated that it does seem to occur — especially “broad scientism” — it seems that they are accused of it because, well, they engage in it. And considering that all of the issues listed there other than scientism are long-standing debates in those fields — especially philosophy — it’s perfectly understandable that people might resent science wandering into those debates claiming to have all the answers when what they’re saying is, really, nothing new (the reaction to Krauss and Hawking on the “Something from Nothing” question seems to be that sort of comment).

But “scientism” is indeed often vaguely defined, and I’m certainly not going to claim that no one who decries scientism is doing so more out of, say, an idea that their preferred methodology is the right one as opposed to a real, solid argument, so let’s look at what Pinker calls “scientism” and why he wants to adopt that as a good thing as opposed to a bad thing:

It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

The first is that the world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms. The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules.

The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

The problem here is that Pinker’s two ideals don’t seem particularly scientific, meaning particular to it. Sure, to be science one may have to adopt them, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to suggest that, say, philosophy hasn’t embraced these two principles, and yet seems to have a methodology that’s different from science … and it should know, considering that it originally spawned science and considered it a subset of its method — natural philosophy — rather than the whole method itself. But take a look again at that list of things that should be dismissed as sources of knowledge … and that he seems to say should simply be dismissed as sources of knowledge: faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, subjective certainty. If he’s going to go after religion and try to import these things to it, he’s going to have to recognize that faith, revelation and dogma are things that they think work, which means that he’s going to have to argue against it, and argue against it with something that both sides agree works. If science a priori rejects those things, then that isn’t going to work well at all. And authority, conventional wisdom, and subjective certainty seem to be things that, philosophically, we’ve demonstrated can, at least at times, produce knowledge, and even knowledge where science simply can’t get anything like knowledge, or at least where it’s very difficult. The amazing success of folk psychology over the scientifically infused psychology demonstrates that sometimes conventional wisdom works out really well, and thus can even justify itself. In order to solve this problem, Pinker needs something like philosophy, something that doesn’t presume what can generate knowledge but argues for what can and what can’t at a base level that, for the most part, everyone can accept.

So, these two ideals are philosophically questionable, and to the extent that they aren’t questionable they aren’t explicitly scientific. So it seems that right off the bat Pinker is at best claiming things as being fundamentally scientific when they aren’t (they’re fundamental to science, certainly, but not fundamentally scientific) and making claims of what is valid and reasonable about other fields by appealing to justifications that those fields don’t accept. Ignoring the other fields, what they do, and what they need is not a good way to start assuaging the fears of those who aren’t happy about the encroachment of science into the humanities.

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities.

The problem here is that he says that we are guided in our moral and spiritual values by science … as a conclusion to a paragraph that talks entirely about how science disproves religion. And so those possibilities that are hemmed in by science? Well, religious ones. So, here he’s basically arguing that science eliminates religion — ie that it will subsume/eliminate religion because it should — and so that those who are religious are right to fear its encroachment … while ignoring the humanities who are also fearing that, and who he’s trying to calm. And when he outlines this new replacement:

And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

… he ignores that this was done philosophically, without any of these modern scientific facts, by Hobbes. His statement here is nothing more than Hobbesian Social Contract, which is not a particularly popular position in moral philosophy, for good reason: It relies on Ethical Egoism, and is seen as being incompatible with an altruism worthy of the name. It is not, despite popular belief, the equivalent of Utilitarianism. Now, none of this means that this isn’t right, but this isn’t new either, and any new facts that can be brought to the table don’t help it, at all. And the conclusion itself is controversial, and it isn’t even clear that this is a view that is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world. Pinker is, again, taking philosophical positions, claiming them to be science, and then saying that science can help because look at what it brings us? It’d be nice if he’d understand the actual positions of the humanities and the work they’ve done before proclaiming what science can do to help them.

Moreover, science has contributed—directly and enormously—to the fulfillment of these values. If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science.

Few argue that science, in and of itself, has not provided benefit. The scientism debate is not normally one over whether or not science is good; most accept that it is. Even his comments about the criticisms of those who list the contributions science has made to attrocities generally only do it to point out that it’s difficult to claim that science can define our moral values when it has been invoked to support moral attrocities as well as moral progress. Science is descriptive and valueless. It tells us how to achieve our values once we figure out what they are, and so once we decide what our values are we can use science to help us achieve them … depending on what those values are, of course. So it is certainly the case that science will be of use to morality … but it will not particularly help us define what it means to be moral in the first place.

Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science. They are commonly misinformed that scientists no longer care about truth but merely chase the fashions of shifting paradigms.

Well, here’s the thing: students can graduate from elite colleges in the sciences with only a trifling exposure to any of the humanities. Note that in philosophy at least, science gets covered quite a bit, especially since a lot of its fields benefit in at least some way from it. The idea of “paradigm shift” comes from Kuhn … who developed that by empirically studying what scientists actually do. In short Kuhn did science on science and came up with that conclusion … and in philosophy that’s expressed as one idea while the Popperian ideal is stressed as being what the scientific method is really about. Again, Pinker reveals that he knows little about what actually goes on in the humanities while chastising them for not respecting science enough. And, sure, philosophy and the humanities do indeed do similar things to science, but that hardly helps his case.

I can testify that this recrimination is not a relic of the 1990s science wars. When Harvard reformed its general education requirement in 2006 to 2007, the preliminary task force report introduced the teaching of science without any mention of its place in human knowledge: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.” This strange equivocation between the utilitarian and the nefarious was not applied to other disciplines. (Just imagine motivating the study of classical music by noting that it both generates economic activity and inspired the Nazis.) And there was no acknowledgment that we might have good reasons to prefer science and know-how over ignorance and superstition.

The interesting thing here is that the benefits that Harvard cites are pretty much what he and others cite as the reasons why science has been successful and what it has done to help humanity. Noting that science and technology have also had downsides is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly for something that so many people — Pinker himself — tend to cite as unvarnished goods. And the reasons to prefer science over ignorance are given by … the benefits listed in the first part. Hello? So this seems to be nothing more than a gripe that they didn’t just stand up and say that science is great and wonderful and we should just all follow it. Sure, maybe they didn’t say similar things about other fields, but classical music, for example, is not about those benefits, nor does it justify itself by appealing to them. Science does. And so listing the benefits really is important in understanding and accepting science’s role and its success, and why we should value it … and so for completeness we should list its problems as well. Shouldn’t we?

At a 2011 conference, another colleague summed up what she thought was the mixed legacy of science: the eradication of smallpox on the one hand; the Tuskegee syphilis study on the other. (In that study, another bloody shirt in the standard narrative about the evils of science, public-health researchers beginning in 1932 tracked the progression of untreated, latent syphilis in a sample of impoverished African Americans.) The comparison is obtuse. It assumes that the study was the unavoidable dark side of scientific progress as opposed to a universally deplored breach, and it compares a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people with the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century, in perpetuity.

Sure, the syphilis study isn’t an unavoidable dark side … but it isn’t prevented by science either. There is nothing in the scientific method that says that you shouldn’t study syphilis that way or through one of the many horrific ways we have gained knowledge in the past. It’s morality and moral values that do that, and moral values do not come directly from science, which is generally valueless. In fact, science unvarnished puts gaining knowledge as its top goal, and that implies that you do it any way you can. So learning through atrocities is perfectly compatible with science … but not with morality. Which should, then, make one thing clear: science, in and of itself, does not have moral values and so we must watch science carefully, and hold it to the standards of morality provided by … philosophy. A humanity, you will note. We need ethics boards carefully examining scientific experiments like we have in psychology. That is, indeed, what we have to take from the mixed legacy of scientific investigation. Which does not prove science bad, but rather proves it, well, valueless, in the moral sense.

The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.

It isn’t the lack of new ideas that is causing the problems in the humanities, nor is it the case that science is necessarily providing them. The problem is the attitude that science is the hallmark of all knowledge worth having, and so things that work the way science does and, more importantly, produce results of the same sort and frequency as those of science — mostly of direct application to our daily lives — are the only things that really have value or are worth studying. Instead of trying to infuse these fields with science to make them more appealing, we need to look at these fields as these fields and demonstrate how they are indeed important. We don’t want these fields to bleed their respect from science, and gain respect only insofar as they work as science or can be considered to be such. Thus, we need to treat the fields not as subfields of science, but as fields in their own right, with the own problems, goals, and methodologies.

Jerry Coyne and the “Postivist Petard”

October 21, 2012

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.

Is Coyne Accusing People of “Philosophism”?

June 11, 2012

So, Jerry Coyne is talking about articles taking Lawrence Krauss to task for dismissing philosophy, he rather humorously says this:

Here Rovelli includes both conceptual thinking and application of a methodology under the rubric of “philosophy.” Well, that wasn’t my definition, but since “philosophy” is an ill-defined concept, by all means let him call it what he wants. Yes, many scientists engage in conceptual thinking (that’s how the notion of inclusive fitness—indeed, of evolution itself—was born in evolutionary biology) and they also “apply a methodology.” But to claim that that is truly philosophy smacks a bit of turf defense. What I wonder, in the end, is whether progress in physics would have been retarded had there not been a formal field of the philosophy of science. I’m open to arguments either way, but for now I’m unaware of any advances in physics that wouldn’t exist in the absence of the philosophy of science as a discipline.

So, first, note that he’s basically griping about philosophers defining philosophy “broadly”, and so broadly that it includes things that he considers “science”. And yet, somehow he does not note how he, in turn, defines science broadly, to the extent that it likely includes philosophy. How, then, is he not engaging in the precise same “turf defense” that he claims the philosophers do? At least philosophy has, in fact, philosophical examinations independent of discussions with science and physics to claim that it, at least, is interested in conceptual analysis; all he has for his turf defense are his own personal philosophical — and not scientific — ruminations.

Second, there are also no advances in philosophy that wouldn’t exist in the absence of physics as a discipline. So what? Yes, yes, I know that this is in response to a comment that philosophy is really useful for science, but it’s still a bit of an odd comment.

Ultimately, it almost seems here like Coyne is accusing philosophers of philosophism, when he is the first to deny that the term “scientism” is a useful classification.

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

May 23, 2012

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.

Kitcher on Scientism …

March 26, 2012

Via Edward Feser’s site, I came across this review of Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” by Philip Kitcher. He spends a lot of it talking about scientism, and says this right at the end:

Scientism rejects dialogue: the sciences provide the answers; the lesser provinces of the intellectual and cultural world should take instruction. To be sure, well-supported messages from the sciences are sometimes foolishly ignored — think of the warnings from climate scientists about our planet’s future. Yet scientism can easily prove counterproductive. However worthy the impulse to trumpet urgent news, smugness, arrogance and delight in shattering entrenched beliefs are as apt to alienate as to convert. The challenge is not to decide who has the Most Important Insights, but to comprehend the knowledge we have, finite, fallible and fragmentary as it is. We should make the most of it.

I think that all of the forms of scientism I talked about in the series all follow from that first sentence, meaning that if you accept that attitude you either have to argue that only things that are scientific are useful or are answers or alternatively you have to broaden science so that it does, in fact, provide all the answers. And I think the last sentence is important as well; we need to decide what is the best approach to use for a particular question, not try to decide what — if any — method is the best for all questions.

Scientism 101: Scientism

January 4, 2012

The last post — for a while at least — in this series.

In this one, I’m going to define what I consider to be scientism. Right now, I divide it up into two main categories, which I’ll call Broad Scientism and Narrow Scientism. There may be more categories out there, and there may be more instances in each, but for right now these are the sorts of things that I mean when I go after scientism.

1) Broad Scientism.

This category involves in some way broadening the scope of science beyond the scope it really should have. There are a number of ways this can be done.

1) Saying that science should be broadly defined to include things beyond the scope of what most people would think should be included in science. So, let me first exclude some cases here. Saying — as is fairly often done in philosophy — that science may be able to address a problem that was not specifically a scientific problem (like, say, ethics) is not in and of itself scientism. Nor, in fact, is arguing that we need a broader definition for what is science because some of the things we think are science need a broader definition to work. What this one means is simply defining science more broadly — like to any form of rational inquiry — for no real reason. So, simply saying “Science, broadly construed …” is scientism unless you argue for why science should be construed broadly. The main reason for my post about philosophy being a better candidate for that broad definition was to demonstrate just how controversial the presumption that the term “science” ought to used for that actually is.

2) Defining science broadly — even with argumentation — while then still giving epistemic primacy to the formal sciences. So, in this case, it would be saying that science broadly construed includes things like mathematics and philosophy but then claiming that facts from the formal sciences prove that the philosophical and mathematical arguments and problems are resolved without any other argumentation. In short, coming up with a scientific result, leaping to a conclusion about what it means from a naive interpretation, and then expecting that you won’t have to do any more philosophical work to prove your point, or ignoring philosophical objections to your philosophical point because “Science says”. This would be a form of equivocation, and so would not only be a really bad argument but it would be one that, in fact, gives science more primacy than it might deserve.

3) Giving a definition — any definition — of science and then arguing that if any field uses any part of that definition that it is also science. So, for example, defining science as being empirical, experimental and rational and then saying that if a field uses empirical data or reason, then it must be science. Or, the converse, insisting that if you use an empirical argument at all, then that’s somehow justification for science, and that any case where empirical data is used proves a point about this debate. Ultimately, the problem here is having a definition that might exclude some fields since they don’t do all of them but then sneaking back in a broader definition by refusing to allow those fields to use any of those things or else they’re conceding something. This is wrong because there is a big difference between a field that is empirical, rational and skeptical and one that is empirical, rational, but not skeptical. If empirical and rational are meant to be the critical components so that using either says something, then that should be specified in the definition itself, and not smuggled in later.

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.

Now, are my definitions strawmen? It’s hard to see how they could be. 1-1 is something that is clearly done, and it wouldn’t take too much searching to find places where Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne do exactly that. 1-2 is a bit harder, but some of Coyne’s discussions of free will might be seen as doing it. Give that one a pass for an actual example, but hold onto it as an error that people may well be making, even if not deliberately. 1-3 is one way of interpreting Coyne’s challenge to Keith Ward to produce one piece of knowledge that was not found empirically; philosophy may well have a distinct method from Coyne’s definition and still use some empirical data, so just having the data be empirical would not be sufficient to say anything interesting. That being said, he might there have been reacting to Ward’s argument that some knowledge is non-empirical. However, interpreting it that way Coyne runs straight into 2-2; he talks about “fact about the world” and “fact” interchangeably, but that need not be what anyone means by fact. And I’ve seen commenters at various sites imply 2-1 and 2-2, and Coyne’s list of things he things are “serious philosophy” in his reply to myself and Dan Fincke leans on this a bit as well.

So, 1-1 is confirmed. 1-3, 2-1 and 2-2 are things that a not unreasonable interpretation might imply but might just be misunderstandings. 1-2 is just something to watch out for. But they certainly aren’t strawmen, then, in any interesting way. I can clearly find those who practice scientism, and I think it wrong. So, at least with me, the debate can start with 1-1.

Note that in a comment at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, I was asked if his view of not calling it science but still trying to find some sort of general term for rational inquiry would be scientism. As you should be able to tell by now, it wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t be wrong or at least have no argument for why he includes some things and not others. Not all errors are scientism.

Scientism 101: Philosophism and Religionism …

December 31, 2011

The next post in my on-going series on scientism.

Jerry Coyne recently made a good point about the scientism debate:

And if “scientism” means “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for science,” then we must also have a new term, “religionism”, meaning “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for religion.” And we could also have “philosophism,” fallacies based on too much respect for philosophy. Religionism, of course, is pervasive, but we don’t see Pigliucci, or anyone else, accusing the faithful or repeatedly committing this logical error.

Now, this is based on Paul M. Paolini’s definition of scientism, which is not one I particularly favour (and, if you read Coyne’s attempt to reply to it, it’s not even particularly clear since Coyne seems to miss the point of it but, in fact, that’s an error that is consistent with Paolini’s at least broad statement). So the specifics of the definition are not what is good about this quote. What is good about this quote is the fact that he brings up — but unfortunately both uses incorrectly here and elsewhere — that if we have a scientism, can we have a philosphism or religionism as well, a case where philosophy and religion are imposing just as invalidly on science as we claim scientism cases impose on those fields?

And my reply is … absolutely. We don’t, I think, have a term for this because at least in our current culture philosophical and religious claims are generally ignored by science anyway; to get, say, philosophy of mind to be considered at all by science you have to go into an interdisciplinary field which by definition includes multiple fields, and even then it can sometimes be a hard row to hoe to get reasonable philosophical concerns considered. So, in general, we don’t have a term — or, at least, one that is in common use — for those cases because, in general, no one thinks it a problem. At best and at first blush, it would seem that those who would ever advocate such things quickly get brushed off and ignored by science fairly quickly, and aren’t taken seriously. And in general most people don’t expect science to take it seriously.

But is that really true? It might be reasonable to think that at least some of the “teach the controversy” advocacy does cross the line into religionism and, in fact, is something that a great many people think science should take quite seriously. Why should any creationist or ID position be taught in science classes when they aren’t scientific theories? Let’s take one potential response: Because science should consider those to be valid theories. But on what grounds should science accept creationist, ID or theistic evolutionary stories as being the default or preferred theory in science, or even as a valid one? The answer seems to be that there are religious reasons, from the claim that religions claim it to — more appropriate to theistic evolution — the claim that it makes sense of religious claims while also taking on all of the scientific data. Science can, quite rightly, say that reconciling their claims with religion are not their concern, and so can ignore the appeals to add those views due to religious issues.

However, there is another argument that wouldn’t be religionistic, which is that if science either directly or indirectly takes a religious position then since public schools are not allowed to take religious positions science would either have to not teach the things that take religious positions or make certain that the opposing religious positions are represented and represented fairly. Since Coyne likes to claim about how science and religion are incompatible and how evolution is incompatible with a theistic God, this might be a valid charge. Claiming that wouldn’t be religionistic though; at best, it would be political but political concerns do influence how and what things are taught in schools.

So, why is the first religionistic and the second not? The first claims that science should take the position seriously based solely on concerns raised from outside of science, in this case religion. The second does not claim anything about how science should consider the arguments, but points out that in order to teach it in public schools certain conditions must be in place. The key difference is that to be one of the “isms” we’re talking about here you have to be making a claim of how the other field should be thinking about it, not just a pragmatic claim.

But we can go a step further into non-“ismic” claims, because what I, at least, think we don’t want is a segmentation of all of these fields. We want it to be the case that relevant information and knowledge from all fields can be used to raise issues for or to guide other fields. We want it to be the case that scientific knowledge can guide philosophy and that philosophical conceptual analysis can guide science. So if empirical or scientific concerns can help us tease out ethical concerns, then there’s no problem with doing that (My essay on psychopaths does just that). And if concerns about things like epiphenomenalism may raise issues for straight neuroscientific theories of mind then there’s no problem with scientists looking at the philosophy and starting to sweat a bit. And I don’t even have a problem with science informing interpretations of religious works (especially since, well, I do that all the time). Having various fields inform each other is not a problem. The issue is not with the various fields presenting issues for the others for consideration, but with the insistence that those issues must be taken seriously because they are issues or knowledge generated by that field and so must be issues for the others. So saying that philosophy must accept determinism no matter how ludicrous that is philosophically because that’s science’s preferred theory. Or insisting that determinism cannot be true because it would eliminate moral responsibility, no matter what the scientific evidence says. Or saying that science must accept theistic evolution as a scientific theory on par with unguided evolution because it makes sense of religion.

There are, in fact, many people who take both extremes on all sides, either by insisting that the results of their fields should be just accepted by all others or by insisting that anything outside of their field has no impact on it. But they’re both wrong. We can have fields continuous with each other and influencing each other without making them the same field, and anything else is either one of our “isms” or an academic closed-mindedness that won’t help anyone.