By Tim Harding and James Fodor
In the last issue of The Skeptic (December 2017, pages 56-59), Gary Bakker criticises an essay from the previous September issue of The Skeptic by Tim Harding. This essay is headed ‘A Step Too Far’ (pages 32-35), and argues against the relatively recent advent of the ideology known as scientism, which in a nutshell claims that science is the only legitimate domain of objective knowledge. At several points, Tim’s essay cites and quotes an earlier essay by James Fodor in the Australian Rationalist magazine (December 2016, pages 32-35) titled ‘Not So Simple’, which was also criticised by Bakker. That is why we have prepared this joint response to Bakker’s article.
We think that it is incumbent on a critic to understand and come to grips with what one is criticising. A failure to do so is a recipe for misrepresentation of the arguments one is attempting to refute. In this case, Bakker has not only misrepresented many of our positions and arguments, but more fundamentally he has misrepresented the nature of the topics we are arguing about, including science, scientism, rationality and philosophy.
One of Bakker’s major misunderstandings seems to be about philosophy. To characterise philosophy as what happens at amateur ‘Philosophy Cafes’ is disingenuous, highly misleading and frankly absurd. It is like defining psychology as what is discussed in amateur pop psychology or self-help groups. Philosophy is a serious academic discipline which is taught at almost all of the world’s leading universities. The main sub-fields of academic philosophy include logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science. While logic is of course used by many disciplines including science and mathematics, the study and development of logic itself is actually a branch of philosophy. Until only a few hundred years ago, science was also a branch of philosophy, known as ‘natural philosophy’. Experimental scientific methods were initially developed by the English philosophers Robert Grossteste and Roger Bacon in the 13th century, as explained in an essay by Tim in the June 2016 issue of The Skeptic. Since the branching off of science from philosophy beginning around the 17th century, philosophers have been quite happy to leave empirical observations and experiments to the scientific domain. As such, any competition between philosophy and science exists only in the minds of scientism advocates like Bakker. This imagined competition stems from a lack of understanding of the nature of philosophy. In particular, philosophy of science does not attempt to undermine or replace science, but rather seeks to understand the nature of science and how and why it works as well as it does.
In the present piece, we will critically analyse the arguments made by Bakker in his article. We will begin with an examination of how Bakker has misrepresented our arguments, and failed to understand what we were actually arguing. We will then discuss three key issues raised by Bakker: how moral and ethical questions should be resolved, the justification of science as ‘what works’, and the notion that philosophy has never made any contributions to human knowledge. In each case we argue that not only does Bakker fail to provide convincing reasons for his contention, but also that he faces powerful objections that he fails to address. In discussing each of these specific topics, we also hope to illustrate that the only way Bakker could hope to respond to our objections is by engaging in philosophical argumentation, which would thereby critically undermine his main thesis that such discourse has no value.
Misrepresenting our arguments
Throughout his article, Bakker consistently misstates and misrepresents our arguments. He begins by characterising our writings as exemplary of what he terms ‘small r rationalism’, which according to Bakker entails ‘agreement with Immanuel Kant who argued that knowledge can be innate, can be acquired through pure reasoning, and that philosophical enquiry and argument alone can answer the Big Questions’. This entire concept is a red herring since neither of us is a Kantian, nor are we defending a rationalist as distinct from empiricist approach in our writings. Furthermore, it is logically invalid to infer our wider philosophical positions from two specific essays we have written about narrow topics. In particular, any attempt to characterise us as anti-empiricists is a bit rich given our backgrounds in science and skepticism. This ‘small r rationalism’ is contrasted with ‘capital r Rationalism’, which Bakker says is defined by the Rationalist Society of Australia as holding that ‘knowledge is best acquired by use of the scientific method, which is an inseparable combination of reason plus observation or experiment’. However, Bakker does not provide any reference for his definition of ‘Rationalism’, and we cannot find his quoted definition on the Rationalist Society of Australia website. It remains unclear, therefore, where Bakker’s concepts of rationalism (small or capital ‘r’) have come from.
Later in his piece, Bakker castigates James for his critique of ‘crude positivism’, which Bakker says ‘sounds like a straw man’, and asks ‘why not critique “refined positivism”?’. In his original article, however, James explained that the reason he discusses ‘crude positivism’ is because he wanted to address the ‘patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives’ that in his experience seemed quite prominent in rationalist/skeptic/freethought communities. Neither of us criticised ‘positivism’ as such in our essays – another red herring on Bakker’s part. A response to more sophisticated philosophical accounts of positivism would require much more space than available for James’ short article, and furthermore such accounts have already been written elsewhere. All this should have been clear enough after a careful reading of our essays, where we both outline clearly what James means by the term ‘crude positivism’. Consulting ‘Mr Google’ is no substitute for carefully reading the argument one intends to respond to.
James also does not say that scientism claims that ‘the humanities should adopt the scientific method’, and even though this appears in quotes in Bakker’s piece, this phrase is not present in either Tim’s essay or James original essay. So this is an actual misquotation by Bakker – even worse than a misrepresentation. The closest statement to it was one by Prof. Tom Sorrell who was cited on page 33 of Tim’s essay using different words, albeit with a similar meaning. Rather, what James in fact argued is that ‘if the superior status of the natural sciences is based on their superior adherence to a particular set of epistemological principles, then it is those principles themselves that are the true bearer of the superior status… applying these same principles to any disciple should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards.’ James’ point here was simply that the principles of sound inquiry are broadly applicable across all disciplines. Thomas Huxley expressed this idea well: ‘the man of science simply uses with scrupulous exactness the methods which we all, habitually and at every minute, use carelessly’.
Finally, Tim does not equate ‘science’ with ‘the natural sciences’ in his essay. This comment by Bakker appears to be a misunderstanding of a statement by Prof. Tom Sorrell that Tim cites on page 33.
Bakker on ethics
Bakker attempts to give an account as to how ‘moral and ethical questions’ can be answered without recourse to philosophical argumentation. He argues that we should resolve these questions by the following procedure:
- Realise that moral questions are not ‘answerable by reference to some absolute, transcendent set of rules’.
- Instead, focus on what principles and laws ‘best achieve society’s goals’.
- Engage in systematic observation of ‘what human beings are actually found to value’ (as individuals and as groups).
- Determine (empirically) which codes of law, ethics, and mores will work best to achieve these goals, and implement those.
The first point appears to constitute an endorsement of moral anti-realism, the position that there are no objectively existing moral states of affairs. This is a philosophical position that stands in contrast to many forms of moral realism, which affirm the existence of objective moral facts while differing on the form that such moral facts take. Bakker not only fails to notice that he is making a philosophical claim, but also offers no reason at all to accept his assertion. His second point appears to be an endorsement of some form of cultural relativism, the view that what is good or moral is dependent upon the goals and standards of a particular culture. Later though Bakker also mentions ‘the goals… of humanity’, so he may not be a cultural relativist, but providing an account of what it could mean for ‘humanity’ to have goals, let alone what such goals might be, is not even attempted. Either way, these are philosophical positions that require defence, and cannot simply be asserted without argument.
Aside from the lack of substantive arguments for his position, several critical objections can be raised against his views. For example, in cases of genocide or slavery, societies have determined that their goals are best met by engaging in actions we would regard as immoral. On what basis, in Bakker’s account, can we say that they are morally wrong in doing so? Bakker’s account also renders apparently very important questions about what goals we ought to have as unintelligible, since on his view this would trivially amount to asking whether having a certain goal would help us to achieve that goal. Perhaps Bakker’s account can be rescued by developing sufficiently rich concepts about what is meant by a ‘goal’, how competing goals within a group are integrated, what kinds of goals are most pertinent, etc. All of the extra conceptual work and articulation of distinctions and giving of reasons for one’s positions, however, is precisely what one does in doing philosophy. The poverty of Bakker’s ‘solution’ to the problems posed by morality and ethics points clearly and directly for exactly why we need philosophy.
In response to Bakker’s third point, even the notion of determining empirically what people actually value is not the straightforward scientific exercise Bakker implies it to be. It sounds like he is advocating some sort of populist opinion poll or focus group approach to ethical questions. Whilst these might provide opinions about particular ethical issues, they are unlikely to result in more generalised frameworks or principles that can be applied to other ethical issues. Anybody who has seriously studied ethics will be aware that some ethical problems can be very complex, and not conducive to solving by public opinion surveys.
Science and pragmatism
Bakker defines science with prime reference to ‘what works’, arguing that ‘[science] is a method of inquiry, and it is the only one we have found so far that gives us reliable, reproducible, consensual, evidence-backed, applicable knowledge, in any “field of inquiry”. In fact, this is so almost by definition. If a process – a particular method – works, we include it in the scientific method’. In our earlier essays we raised the objection that this is an insufficient basis for defending the superiority of science, since some scientific theories that ‘worked’ and were ‘useful’ nevertheless have been shown to be incorrect. Bakker responds that this is not a reason for doubting pragmatic justifications of the superiority of science, since no disciple outside of science can do any better. As he says: ‘no other method has ever shown a scientifically-derived explanation that works to be wrong’.
The problem with this response is that it ignores most of James’ argument. In his argument he explained that there are two main ways of understanding the goal of science. One view, realism, holds that science attempts to arrive at accurate (albeit usually approximate) descriptions of the way reality actually is. If this is a key goal of science, then obviously there is more to good science than just being ‘useful’, as demonstrated by the fact that many useful scientific theories have nevertheless turned out not to accurately describe reality. Bakker, however, doesn’t seem to be persuaded by this, so perhaps he is an instrumentalist. Instrumentalism holds that science does not attempt to tell us about the way the world really is, but merely to deliver useful models and descriptions that make predictions and/or serve practical ends. Like other advocates of scientism, however, Bakker has also claimed that ‘all meaningful philosophical problems are actually scientific problems’. This seems to pose a problem since a great many philosophical problems relate to claims about the way the world is, while under instrumentalism science has nothing to say about the way the world actually is beyond providing useful models. Thus, if scientific instrumentalism is correct it seems that philosophical problems cannot be scientific questions. The only way to reconcile these views would be to assert that all philosophical questions relating to how the world actually is, are in fact ‘meaningless’. Yet this would entail that even questions like ‘is slavery morally wrong?’ or ‘does God exist?’ or ‘what is knowledge?’ are actually meaningless. Even if one is dubious about whether philosophy has provided useful answers to such questions, it is quite something else to assert that the questions themselves are meaningless. To us this is clearly absurd – such questions may be subtle and multifaceted, but are not ‘meaningless’. As such it seems that Bakker is caught in a bind – either he must embrace scientific realism and thereby abandon his purely pragmatic conception of science as ‘what works’, or else he must instead embrace scientific instrumentalism and thereby (given his other views) hold that all philosophical questions are meaningless.
The other aspect of James’ argument about the status of science that Bakker ignores is the fact that appealing to ‘what works’ is a far too amorphous and generous criterion to grant science the superior status Bakker wants for it. This is because many other fields of inquiry and human endeavour also ‘work’. For example, one goal shared by many people and societies throughout history is to understand their purpose in living and find meaning in life. For the large majority of such people, belief in a supernatural being or spiritual agencies beyond this material world has ‘worked’ to provide them with answers that they find compelling and meaningful. We could even point to a variety of psychological studies indicating that such spiritual beliefs and practises actually do lead to better outcomes along a range of metrics of interest, such as life satisfaction, physical and mental health. Yet we would not wish to thereby grant supernatural belief the status of being a science, no matter how well it has ‘worked’ for many people over human history. Perhaps, however, we are not to understand what ‘works’ in this case as referring to achieving social or personal goals (though Bakker does use the term this way in his discussion of morality), but rather as to being uniquely able to generate ‘reliable, reproducible, consensual, evidence-backed, applicable knowledge’. In this case, however, the criterion still clearly fails, since (as Bakker himself seems to acknowledge), history, social science, detective work, jurisprudence, and other fields can also deliver this sort of knowledge. So it remains unclear what exactly is supposed to place science in the uniquely privileged position that Bakker attempts to carve out for it.
Philosophy and knowledge
One of Bakker’s primary concerns in his article seems to be in arguing that ‘philosophy… as a truth-seeker… has been a dismal failure’. The only reason he gives for believing this, however, is that ‘in 3000 years it has confirmed for us not one answer to any of the Big Questions’. We interpret this to mean that philosophers have not been able to agree upon an answer to any of the Big Questions. This, however, seems to be a completely misplaced criterion. To say that philosophers have not yet agreed upon a final answer to any of the ‘Big Questions’ is simply to say that philosophy is not yet complete. This is hardly unusual in academia – theoretical physicists also admit that their work is incomplete. It does not follow that philosophers have not produced any useful knowledge or insights pertinent to the ‘Big Questions’. Bakker seems to think that philosophical knowledge is all or none – either a question has an established, agreed upon answer, or it does not. Philosophy, however, attempts (among other things) to explore and articulate key concepts that underpin human thought, such as ‘causation’, ‘time’, ‘space’, ‘mind’, ‘rationality’, ‘knowledge’, ‘good’, and ‘meaning’. This process of conceptual exploration and refinement is not all or none, but a gradual accumulation of new arguments, models, comparisons, and analytical frameworks, of that sort that can be found in any introductory philosophical textbook or handbook.
Another aspect that Bakker overlooks is that once a widely agreed upon answer or framework for thinking about one particular question is arrived upon, the field ceases to be regarded as philosophy and becomes an established science. As we mentioned earlier, modern physics was originally called ‘natural philosophy’, and most of the other fields of natural and social science likewise branched off from philosophy at various times. This was not simply because researchers decided to use ‘the scientific method’, but was in part the result of conceptual refinements and theoretical developments (as well as technological advances) that allowed the discipline to reach maturity as a science. We note that much of the subject matter of philosophy of mind is currently in the process of being transformed into the purview of the emerging field of cognitive science. Thus, the only way Bakker can argue that philosophy has been ‘a dismal failure’ as a truth seeker is first, by ignoring all of the important historical contributions that philosophers and philosophical reasoning has made in providing the foundation for modern scientific disciplines, and secondly by imposing an implausibly rigid and simplistic criterion for what philosophical knowledge should look like.
Finally, Bakker ignores the many demonstrable contributions that philosophy has made to increasing human knowledge and wellbeing, of which we will now give a few examples. Our first example is that of Galileo, who drew his conclusions about falling objects using logic and reason rather than experience or observation. On page 58 Bakker draws a distinction between reason and logic, yet he seems unaware that reason is the application of logic, which is a sub-field of philosophy rather than science. How on Earth could Galileo have experienced objects falling in a vacuum? Our second example is that of the democratic principles and safeguards embodied in the United States Constitution, which were significantly influenced by political philosophers such as William Blackstone, John Locke, and Montesquieu. Science had nothing to do with it. Our third example is the work of a number of philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and Alan Turing, who developed the foundations of logic and computer science that underpinned the development of modern digital computers. Our final example is the development of the ethical principles of informed patient consent, which were developed by judges and bioethicists. Prior to this, there were some notorious cases in the first half of the twentieth century where informed patient consent had not been obtained for certain clinical trials. We argue that informed patient consent is primarily obtained for legal or ethical reasons, and not for purely scientific purposes. We could supply further examples of the practical usefulness of philosophy, but space in this magazine is understandably limited.
Bakker’s article exemplifies the pitfalls of crude positivism and the folly of scientism. There seems to be an inverse correlation in such writings between the disdainful dismissal of non-scientific disciplines like philosophy and the level of understanding of what philosophy actually is. In particular, the fundamental flaw of Bakker’s argument is that, in arguing for the unique superiority of science and the uselessness of philosophy as a field of inquiry, Bakker is himself doing philosophy. Because of his rejection of the value of philosophy and refusal to engage with relevant philosophical literature, however, he also does it very badly. Philosophy addresses many of the most fundamental questions that underpin all aspects of human endeavour, including law, politics, ethics – and even science. It is therefore not something we can simply avoid doing or pretend doesn’t exist. It can often be difficult and even frustrating when agreement and final resolution is often so hard to achieve. Nevertheless, we believe that as intellectually responsible skeptics it is vital to take philosophical issues seriously, and reject the easy but misguided notion of ‘crude positivism’ that science is the only form of human inquiry worth taking seriously.