Tag Archives: scientism

Philosophy Denial: A Trap for the Unwary

by Dr. Patrick Stokes

“There is no new thing under the sun” complains ‘the Preacher,’ the great nihilist philosopher of ancient Israel. Certainly, philosophy-bashing is nothing new. The Athenians put Socrates to death, the Alexandrians murdered Hypatia, Jan Patočka died after a long interrogation by the Czech communist secret police. Thankfully in recent years philosophers have gotten off comparatively easily. The hemlock having been quietly shelved, these days we philosophers mostly just have to put up with rockstar astrophysicists (to date: Hawking, Krauss, deGrasse Tyson) and the odd thinkpiece declaring philosophy obsolete, unproductive, or simply ‘dead.’

What’s interesting about these critiques is that they all end up falling obliviously into exactly the same trap. All end up trying to philosophize their way out of doing philosophy, like a drowning person trying to drink his way out of the water. Gary Bakker’s recent article on these pages is a splendidly illustrative example of this genre.

A standard complaint in the anti-philosophy literature is that science progresses and philosophy does not. This complaint takes at least two different forms, both of which are present in Bakker’s piece. The first is that philosophy is simply made redundant by advances in other fields, principally the natural sciences. If physics can tell us why there’s something rather than nothing, so the thinking goes, who cares what Spinoza had to say on the same topic? Why should we care about philosophers’ definitions of ‘nothing,’ ‘cause’ or ‘substance’ when the definitions that scientists use get the job done perfectly well?

To call philosophy an ‘alternative methodology’ to science, as Bakker does, misses the point if it assumes they each apply to the same type of proposition, as if science and philosophy take themselves to be two different ways of testing claims like ‘water boils at 100 degrees celcius at sea level’ and ‘no two numerically distinct entities can share all their properties.’

Bakker’s in fairly esteemed company in buying into this confusion: Stephen Hawking’s claim that physics has superseded philosophy rests on the same mistaken assumption that physics and philosophy were simply alternative, competing methodologies for producing the same type of knowledge about the same thing, both chasing the same goal, and physics won.

You can’t test the boiling point of water philosophically, and you’d be a fool to try. But equally, Leibniz’ principle of the identity of indiscernibles is not an empirical proposition. You won’t determine whether it’s true or not by observation or experiment. Neither are the propositions of logic, or ethics, or aesthetics, or even epistemology. Yet that does not excuse us from having to answer logical, ethical, aesthetic, or epistemic questions.

The second complaint is the even more sweeping one that philosophy doesn’t answer any serious questions we might have. Of course philosophy offers answers to questions all the time; the complaint is, rather, that they don’t stay answered. Bakker argues that my erstwhile Stop the AVN comrade Peter Bowditch, in defending the value of philosophy, fails to provide a single “scrap of empirical evidence – just one example of a problem it had solved.”

But that’s already to invoke a standard of success (empirical evidence) and with it a criterion for measuring philosophy against that standard (the solving of problems) that are not only tendentious in themselves – why would we assume logical, metaphysical, epistemological or ethical problems are solvable in the same way as empirical questions? – they’re a standard and a criterion that could only be defended philosophically.

For a great many of philosophy’s critics, particularly those given to the more naïve forms of scientism, this is a curious and persistent blind spot. They quite rightly defend the scientific method as a knowledge-generating mechanism so unprecedentedly successful that it overrules any and all competing methods – and in a world full of pseudoscience and associated nonsense it’s a very good thing that they do!

But you cannot use the scientific method to investigate the efficacy of the scientific method itself without falling into obvious circularity. Bakker – like a great many philosophers of science before him – appeals here to the fact that science works as a justification for taking the deliverances of the scientific method as being true. I’ve certainly no objection to that. The problem is that ‘what is true is what works’ is not a scientific proposition. It’s a philosophical one, with roots going back to pragmatist philosophers like Charles Peirce and William James.

Like many philosophy denialists, Bakker simply fails to notice that his own position, in this case a position he calls ‘empiricism,’ is itself a philosophical position, and as such can only be evaluated and defended philosophically. In fact, Bakker’s view, as he acknowledges, is really a pragmatist rather than an empiricist one: his “what works, works” is a long way from the sort of scientific realism we usually associate with what he calls ‘Rationalism.’ (It’s also very odd he thinks ‘postmodernists’ – insofar as that’s a descriptively useful term, which it mostly isn’t – dislike pragmatism. Rorty would be spinning in his grave).

That doesn’t mean this ‘Rationalist’ position is wrong. But it’s not, as many philosophically naive commentators seem to assume, simply and obviously right either. Any half-decent epistemologist with an afternoon to kill could drive a truck through any single element of the truth-standard Bakker endorses: “reliable, reproducible, consensual, evidence-based, applicable knowledge.” Can such a standard be defended? Absolutely! How would you do so? There’s only one way, and it rhymes (sort of) with ‘apostrophe.’

Of course, uninterrogated standards, concepts, and assumptions aren’t always a problem. Most of the time scientists simply don’t need to worry about questions of epistemology or metaphysics. They can do science perfectly well without them, and get further that way than if they had to constantly re-litigate questions about the epistemic and ontological basis of what they do. But questions don’t cease to be questions – even important questions – just because we’ve decided to set them aside within a given domain and for a specific purpose. And even the question of which questions are worth pursuing, being a question about value, is ultimately a philosophical one.

Even Bakker’s claim that “all meaningful philosophical problems are actually scientific problems,” quite apart from being false, is itself a philosophical proposition. Perhaps Bakker might have known that had he looked beyond the dictionary definition of positivism to learn why positivism failed in the specific ways it did. If he knew that history, he might have recognized his claim that “we have misused words to ask and answer questions that weren’t there in the first place” comes straight from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.”

Wittgenstein thought the purpose of philosophy is to dissolve such pseudo-problems, to “show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” Yet as philosophy denialists show time and time again, philosophy is a snare that only gets tighter the more you try to struggle out of it. In claiming science displaces philosophy, Bakker is in fact doing philosophy, not science. In appealing to standards of evidence against which we could judge philosophy, he’s still doing philosophy. In appealing to a (naturalistic?) standard of ‘what works’ in ethics and law he’s absolutely doing philosophy – and falling into a category mistake by trying to smuggle normativity back into a picture he insists is all ‘is’ and no ‘ought.’

That’s the really irritating thing about philosophy: not that the perplexity never ends, but that in the end philosophy itself is simply inescapable. It’s what Bakker’s doing, it’s what I’m doing right now, and it’s what you’re doing right now in assessing these competing arguments. You can do it well, or do it badly; that’s all. And in that sense, we’re indebted to Bakker for unwittingly demonstrating, yet again, the value of philosophy.

Patrick Stokes is senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and a member of Stop the AVN. His most recent book is ‘The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity’ (Oxford, 2015). Reblogged with permission of the author. 

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A joint response to Gary Bakker on scientism and philosophy

By Tim Harding and James Fodor

Introduction

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. The imagined competition stems from a lack of understanding of the nature of philosophy by scientism advocates like Bakker. 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 Baker 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:

  1. Realise that moral questions are not ‘answerable by reference to some absolute, transcendent set of rules’.
  2. Instead, focus on what principles and laws ‘best achieve society’s goals’.
  3. Engage in systematic observation of ‘what human beings are actually found to value’ (as individuals and as groups).
  4. 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.

Concluding remarks

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.

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Skepticism, Science and Scientism

By Tim Harding B.Sc.

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
September 2017, Vol 37 No 3)

In these challenging times of ‘alternative facts’ and anti-science attitudes, it may sound strange to be warning against excessive scientific exuberance.  Yet to help defend science from these attacks, I think we need to encourage science to maintain its credibility amongst non-scientists.

In my last article for The Skeptic (‘I Think I Am’, March 2017), I traced the long history of skepticism over the millennia.  I talked about the philosophical skepticism of Classical Greece, the skepticism of Modern Philosophy dating from Descartes, through to the contemporary form of scientific skepticism that our international skeptical movement now largely endorses.  I quoted Dr. Steven Novella’s definition of scientific skepticism as ‘the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’

Despite the recent growth of various anti-science movements, science is still widely regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for the discovery of empirical knowledge, that is, knowledge derived from observations and experiments.  Even theoretical physics is supposed to be empirically verifiable in principle when the necessary technology becomes available, as in the case of the Higgs boson and Einstein’s gravitational waves.  But empirical observations are not our only source of knowledge – we also use reasoning to make sense of our observations and to draw valid conclusions from them.  We can even generate new knowledge through the application of reasoning to what we already know, as I shall discuss later.

Most skeptics (with a ‘k’) see science as a kind of rational antidote to the irrationality of pseudoscience, quackery and other varieties of woo.  So we naturally tend to support and promote science for this purpose.  But sometimes we can go too far in our enthusiasm for science.  We can mistakenly attempt to extend the scope of science beyond its empirical capabilities, into other fields of inquiry such as philosophy and politics – even ethics.  If only a small number of celebrity scientists lessen their credibility by making pronouncements beyond their individual fields of expertise, they render themselves vulnerable to attack by our opponents who are looking for any weaknesses in their arguments.  In doing so, they can unintentionally undermine public confidence in science, and by extension, scientific skepticism.

The pitfalls of crude positivism

Logical positivism (sometimes called ‘logical empiricism’) was a Western philosophical movement in the first half of the 20th century with a central thesis of verificationism; which was a theory of knowledge which asserted that only propositions verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful.

One of the most prominent proponents of logical positivism was Professor Sir Alfred Ayer (1910-1989) pictured below.  Ayer is best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in his bestselling 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic.  Ayer’s thesis was that a proposition can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical content, otherwise it is either a priori (known by deduction) or nonsensical.  Ayer’s philosophical ideas were deeply influenced by those of the Vienna Circle and the 18th century empiricist philosopher David Hume.

James Fodor, who is a young Melbourne science student, secularist and skeptic has critiqued a relatively primitive form of logical positivism, which he calls ‘crude positivism’.  He describes this as a family of related and overlapping viewpoints, rather than a single well-defined doctrine, the three most commonly-encountered components of which are the following:

(1) Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way; namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.

(2) Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.

(3) Pragmatism: science owes its special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results: it ‘works’.  Philosophy, theology, and other such fields of inquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.

Somewhat controversially, Fodor classifies Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking as exponents of crude positivism when they stray outside their respective fields of scientific expertise into other fields such as philosophy and social commentary.  (Although to be fair, Lawrence Krauss wrote an apology in a 2012 issue of Scientific American, for seemingly dismissing the importance of philosophy in a previous interview he gave to The Atlantic).

Fodor’s component (1) is a relatively uncontroversial viewpoint shared by most scientists and skeptics.  Nevertheless, Fodor cautions that crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence automatically picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities.  In practice, however, this is almost never the case because the interpretation of evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory.  For instance, the raw data from most scientific observations or experiments are unintelligible without the use of background scientific theories and methodologies.

It is Fodor’s components (2) and (3) that are likely to be more controversial, and so I will now discuss them in more detail.

The folly of scientism

What is ‘scientism’ – and how is it different from the natural enthusiasm for science that most skeptics share?  Unlike logical positivism, scientism is not a serious intellectual movement.  The term is almost never used by its exponents to describe themselves.  Instead, the word scientism is mainly used pejoratively when criticising scientists for attempting to extend the boundaries of science beyond empiricism.

Warwick University philosopher Prof. Tom Sorell has defined scientism as: ‘a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.’  In summary, a commitment to one or more of the following statements lays one open to the charge of scientism:

  • The natural sciences are more important than the humanities for an understanding of the world in which we live, or even all we need to understand it;
  • Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore if the humanities are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it; and
  • Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.

At the 2016 Australian Skeptics National Convention, former President of Australian Skeptics Inc., Peter Bowditch, criticized a recent video made by TV science communicator Bill Nye in which he responded to a student asking him: ‘Is philosophy meaningless?’  In his rambling answer, Nye confused questions of consciousness and reality, opined that philosophy was irrelevant to answering such questions, and suggested that our own senses are more reliable than philosophy.  Peter Bowditch observed that ‘the problem with his [Nye’s] comments was not that they were just wrong about philosophy; they were fractally wrong.  Nye didn’t know what he was talking about. His concept of philosophy was extremely naïve.’  Bill Nye’s embarrassing blunder is perhaps ‘low hanging fruit’; and after trenchant criticism, Nye realised his error and began reading about philosophy for the first time.

Some distinguished scientists (not just philosophers) are becoming concerned about the pernicious influence of scientism.  Biological sciences professor Austin Hughes (1949-2015) wrote ‘the temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’

Prof. Hughes notes that advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself.  Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not.  He writes ‘as a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’

Limitations of science

The editor of the philosophical journal Think and author of The Philosophy Gym, Prof. Stephen Law has identified two kinds of questions to which it is very widely supposed that science cannot supply answers:

Firstly, philosophical questions are for the most part conceptual, rather than scientific or empirical.  They are usually answered by the use of reasoning rather than empirical observations.  For example, Galileo conducted a famous thought experiment by reason alone.  Imagine two objects, one light and one heavier than the other one, are connected to each other by a string.  Drop these linked objects from the top of a tower.  If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter object retards the fall of the heavier object.  But the linked objects together are heavier than the heavy object alone, and therefore should fall faster. This logical contradiction leads one to conclude the assumption about heavier objects falling faster is false.  Galileo figured this conclusion out in his head, without the assistance of any empirical experiment or observation.  In doing so, he was employing philosophical rather than scientific methods.

Secondly, moral questions are about what we ought or ought not to do.  In contrast, the empirical sciences, on their own, appear capable of establishing only what is the case.  This is known as the ‘is/ought gap’. Science can provide us with factual evidence that might influence our ethical judgements but it cannot provide us with the necessary ethical values or principles.  For example, science can tell us how to build nuclear weapons, but it cannot tell us whether or not they should ever be used and under what circumstances.  Clinical trials are conducted in medical science, often using treatment groups versus control groups of patients.  It is bioethics rather than science that provides us with the moral principles for obtaining informed patient consent for participation in such clinical trials, especially when we consider that control groups of patients are being denied treatments that could be to their benefit.

I have given the above examples not to criticise science in any way, but simply to point out that science has limitations, and that there is a place for other fields of inquiry in addition to science.

Is pragmatism enough?

Coming back to Fodor’s component (3) of crude positivism, he makes a good point that a scientific explanation that ‘works’ is not necessarily true.  For instance, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 90CE – c. 168CE) explained how to predict the behavior of the planets by introducing ad hoc notions of the deferent, equant and epicycles to the geocentric model of what is now known as our solar system.  This model was completely wrong, yet it produced accurate predictions of the motions of the planets – it ‘worked’.  Another example was Gregor Mendel’s 19th century genetic experiments on wrinkled peas.  These empirical experiments adequately explained the observed phenomena of genetic variation without even knowing what genes were or where they were located in living organisms.

Ptolemy model

Schematic diagram of Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos

James Fodor argues that just because scientific theories can be used to make accurate predictions, this does not necessarily mean that science alone always provides us with accurate descriptions of reality.  There is even a philosophical theory known as scientific instrumentalism, which holds that as long as a scientific theory makes accurate predictions, it does not really matter whether the theory corresponds to reality.  The psychology of perception and the philosophies of mind and metaphysics could also be relevant.  Fodor adds that many of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are really applications of engineering and technology, rather than the discovery process of science itself.

Fodor concludes that if the key to the success of the natural sciences is adherence to rational methodologies and inferences, then it is those successful methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in, rather than the data sets collected in particular sciences.

Implications for science and skepticism

Physicist Ian Hutchison writes ‘the health of science is in fact jeopardised by scientism, not promoted by it.  At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response in other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism.  It taints science itself by association’.  Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science — scientism.  By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research.

The late Prof. Austin Hughes left us with a prescient warning that continued insistence on the universal and exclusive competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase in science denialism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.

References

Ayer, Alfred. J. (1936), Language Truth and Logic, London: Penguin.

Bowditch, Peter ‘Is Philosophy Dead?’ Australasian Science July/August 2017.

Fodor, James ‘Not so simple’, Australian Rationalist, v. 103, December 2016, pp. 32–35.

Harding, Tim ‘I Think I Am’, The Skeptic, Vol. 37 No. 1. March 2017, pp. 40-44.

Hughes, Austin L ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis, Number 37, Fall 2012, pp. 32-50.

Hutchinson, Ian. (2011) Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing.

Krauss, Lawrence ‘The Consolation of PhilosophyScientific American Mind, April 27, 2012.

Law, Stephen, ‘Scientism, the limits of science, and religionCenter for Inquiry (2016), Amherst, NY.

Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Sorell, Thomas (1994), Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, London: Routledge.

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The Folly of Scientism

By Austin L. Hughes
The New Atlantis

‘When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable.

The temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’

‘The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers—for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’

‘Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.’

Austin L. Hughes is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

Excerpts reblogged with permission from The New AtlantisView original post

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Not so simple

The claims by “crude positivists” reveal a lack of rigour that is a threat to rationalism.

By James Fodor

Key points:

  • “Crude positivists” have many shortcomings in their arguments
  • They are prone to “scientism”: the tendency to dismiss the knowledge derived from other disciplines
  • They often make pragmatist claims that science is to be trusted because it “works” when the science can be entirely wrong but result in initiatives that work.

In this essay I wish to address a particular set of opinions that seem to be quite popular among many contemporary atheists, rationalists, and freethinkers. It is not a single specific position, but rather a patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives sharing a more-or-less constant core.

Being somewhat amorphous, the position of which I am speaking does not really have a distinct name. For the purposes of this essay, however, I shall refer to this constellation of views as “crude positivism”.

“Positivism” is a complex and controversial philosophical perspective, which, broadly speaking, is characterised by a strong respect for science and empirical enquiry, and an opposition to truth claims based on metaphysical speculation, faith, or authority.

My purpose here is not to attack positivism itself, but rather the relatively crude form of it that is popularised, to varying degrees, by figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking. While once again emphasising that I am describing a family of related and overlapping viewpoints, rather than a single well-defined doctrine, three of the key most commonly-encountered components of this “crude positivism” are the following:

(1)          Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way; namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.

(2)          Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.

(3)          Pragmatism: science owes its special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results: it “works”. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to inquiry do not produce “results” in this same way, and thus have no special status.

My goal in this piece will be to challenge these three claims. In particular, I will argue that the crude positivism typified by these three views presents an overly narrow conception of knowledge, and represents an ultimately fragile basis upon which to ground challenges to superstition, pseudoscience, and other forms of irrationality.

My key contention is that we need to move beyond such crude positivism in order to have a stronger intellectual underpinning for the atheistic/rationalist/freethought movements.

A final note on style: when I use the phrase “crude positivists” I don’t mean to imply a well-defined group of people. I just use it as shorthand to refer to those who, to varying degrees, hold to one or more of the three positions outlined above.

Strict evidentialism

Crude positivists insist that all beliefs, or at least all beliefs concerning anything of importance, ought to be based upon appropriate evidence.

While I agree with this as an abstract principle, I have concerns about the manner in which crude positivists typically interpret and apply this maxim in practice.

The trouble is that, when challenged, nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something that they regard to be “evidence”. To consider a specific example, the evangelical Christian may claim to know that God works in the lives of believers because they have seen it happen with their own eyes, and experienced it personally in their own lives.

Needless to say, this is not the sort of “evidence” that adherents of crude positivism are likely to accept as legitimate. The question, however, is why not? After all, the justification in question is empirically based, in that it is derived from making observations about the world. Generally positivists respond that such experiences are uncontrolled and anecdotal, and thus cannot be trusted to provide reliable evidence.

To this, however, the Christian may simply agree, arguing that while such experiences are anecdotal, and thus do not qualify as scientific evidence, nevertheless they do constitute evidence of the relevant sort for the domain in question, namely the domain relating to knowledge and experience of God.

According to this perspective, only certain particular phenomena, or aspects of reality, are susceptible to the investigative methods of the empirical sciences, and the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him would not be one of these areas that science can study. These phenomena can be empirically studied, but this is done by applying different standards from those used for scientific inquiry, using methods that are much more personal and experiential.

Scientific methods are applicable in the scientific domain, while other methods and other forms of empirical evidence are applicable in other domains.

I am not attempting to defend this “separate domains” position. Instead, I am arguing that it is not sufficient to respond to a position like this by simply asserting that beliefs should be based on evidence, since that is not the point under dispute. That is, the question is not whether some form of “evidence” is important, but the type of evidence is deemed acceptable, and how that evidence justified claim being made.

A related problem concerns the issue of how evidence should be interpreted.

Crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence, simply and unambiguously, picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities. In practice, however, this is almost never the case because evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory in order to interpret.

For example, in order to understand a historical text, one requires not only knowledge of the language in which it is written, but also a broad understanding of the relevant social and political context in which the text was written.

Likewise, the raw output of most scientific observation or experiments is unintelligible without use of detailed background theories and methodological assumptions.

Given the important role that background assumptions and perspectives shape our interpretations of a given piece of evidence, it is very common for different people, coming from different perspectives, to conclude that the same evidence supports wildly different conclusions. For instance, many young Earth creationists interpret the fossil evidence, and other evidence, in light of their pre-existing belief that the Bible is the literal and infallible word of God. As a result, they conclude that the extant evidence points to a divine creation event in the recent past, devising various ingenious methods of reconciling their beliefs with the apparent evidence to the contrary.

My intent is not to defend creationists, but to illustrate that it is not enough to simply say that creationists ignore the evidence. These creationists are responding to the evidence (indeed they argue that it supports their position), but are interpreting it differently on the basis of different suppositions and approaches. We cannot simply dismiss them as being blinded by their presuppositions, since (as I have just argued) evidence can never be interpreted in a vacuum, free of assumptions or preconceptions, but can only ever be interpreted in the context of an existing methodological framework and various background assumptions.

To say this isn’t to endorse some form of epistemic relativism, but simply to point out that, if we want to explain why creationists and others like them are mistaken, we have to move beyond the crude positivistic cry of “seek the evidence” and articulate a more detailed set of criteria and epistemological principles upon which certain initial assumptions and modes of interpretation are to be preferred over others. We need to do a better job of explaining what types of evidence are most reliable, how to interpret evidence, and why these approaches are more conducive to the formation of true beliefs than other, competing approaches.

Narrow scientism

The second aspect of crude positivism that I want to discuss is the view I have termed “narrow scientism”, which refers to the tendency to dismiss, or significantly downplay, the importance and status of all disciplines outside the natural sciences.

Physics, chemistry, biology, and geology produce reliable knowledge, while psychology is a bit of a question mark, and economics and political science are clearly “not sciences” but belong with disciples like philosophy and much of the humanities, the domain of fuzzy opinion and not verifiable fact. This, at least, is the typical perception among my advocates of crude positivism.

In my view, however, this disciplinary classification is arbitrary, and fails to demarcate any epistemologically relevant distinction. In particular, what is the justification for the view that the only “real sciences” are only the natural sciences? It cannot be the result of having adopted a superior set of methodologies, since in many cases there is more methodological continuity across different disciplines than within single ones.

For example, analytical chemistry and cognitive psychology are both largely focused on laboratory experiments, while in astrophysics and macroeconomics experiments are mostly impossible, and so these disciplines instead rely predominantly upon observation and development of mathematical theories.

Likewise, piecing together the evolutionary relationships of different species has more in common with the linguistic analysis of different languages than it does with other sub-fields of biology.

Nor can it be the subject matter of the disciplines which sets them apart, since there is a continuum between the study of primate behaviour in biology and the study of human behaviour in the social sciences, and also between the study of natural history in geology and biology, and the study of human history in the social sciences and humanities.

Furthermore, many mathematical models originally developed in the context of physics and chemistry have also been profitably applied to many other fields, especially economics and sociology (e.g. equilibrium theory, network analysis, complex systems theory).

My contention here is not that there is literally no difference between the natural sciences and social science or non-scientific disciplines. I do, however, think that there is a great deal of continuity and intermingling between them, both in terms of methodologies and subject matter, a fact which belies the sharp science/non-science dichotomy advocated by crude positivists.

This is not, however, merely a question of whether disciplinary boundaries are sharp or fuzzy. The real point I am trying to make is that crude positivists simply have no justification for elevating the natural sciences (whether their boundaries are fuzzy or not) on a pedestal above all other disciples. That is, I do not think the natural sciences are epistemically privileged in the way that crude positivists claim that they are. After all, what is so special about the natural sciences relative to, say, economics, history, or even blatant pseudosciences like astrology?

The most straightforward answer, and I think the one crude positivists have mostly in mind, is that the natural sciences apply a rigorous scientific method not found in any of these other disciplines, and this method is more conducive to finding truth than other competing methods.

My response to this is threefold.

Firstly, I note that this is not a claim that finds a home in any of the natural sciences (i.e. it is not a scientific claim), but seems to appeal to philosophical criteria that lie outside of science. I do not think there is anything wrong with that, except for the fact that it seems to sit at odds with the crude positivistic view that only science is to be trusted.

Secondly, as I have argued above, it is simply not true that the natural sciences systematically apply different methodologies from those used in other disciplines. Within any discipl[in]e the quality of work varies dramatically, some being much more careful and rigorous than others, and this applies just as much to the natural sciences as to other disciplines.

Thirdly, and most importantly, 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 bearers of the superior status, not the physical sciences themselves. Applying these same principles to any disciple[in]e should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards.

If this is correct, and what is at the bottom of the success of the physical sciences is adherence to a particular methodology or methods of inference, then it is those methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in.

It has been argued that the subject matter of the social sciences and other such disciplines is inherently “messier” and more complex than the comparatively simpler physical systems studied by the natural sciences. However, even if this is true, application of appropriate methodologies should still result in reliable knowledge; the only difference will be that the knowledge will be less precise and known with less confidence, since our understanding of the system in question is less complete and less detailed.

This will not, however, result in a qualitatively distinct and far inferior form of knowledge, contrary to the claims of the crude positivists. Some argue that the subject matter of history and social science is such that it is not suited to study by the rigorous methods of natural science. If this were true, it would seem to leave us with two options: either no reliable knowledge about such things is possible in principle (i.e. we can say little or nothing about human history, how societies and economies work, etc.), or the reliable methods of attaining knowledge in such disciples are distinctly different and at odds with those used in the natural sciences.

The former possibility strikes me as deeply implausible: why should we not at least be able to know a great deal about such topics through careful investigation, and furthermore, how could we possibly know if this were the case given that we could not study these topics?

The latter option seems equally unpalatable, for it is essentially identical to the argument by which evangelical Christians claim that their supernatural claims are outside the bounds of scientific investigation. Indeed, if it is the case that the appropriate methods for studying any subject outside of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to, and at odds with, scientific methods, then any ground for objecting to irrational or unscientific claims is lost.

Whether it is religious claims (“the divine cannot be studied scientifically”), alternative medicine (“human health is too holistic to be subjected to scientific methods”), or the paranormal (“the spirits don’t respond under controlled conditions”), it can always be argued that the subject matter lies outside of the natural sciences, and hence different, non-scientific investigative methods are applicable.

In my view, this absurd outcome shows that, if we grant superior respect and status to the claims of the natural sciences, it must be because (when conducted properly) the natural sciences use justified and reliable general epistemological processes, processes which should similarly be conducive to knowledge acquisition when applied to other subjects.

Crude positivists who instead reject any application of scientific methods outside of the natural sciences cannot then simultaneously berate those making religious, paranormal, and supernatural claims for failing to use scientific standards and methods, since by their own admission such methods are only applicable to certain subjects. Narrow scientism, then, is at odds with the core principle of basing all important beliefs upon reliable evidence.

Pragmatism

The third and final aspect of crude positivism that I wanted to discuss in this piece is pragmatism, the appeal to the past successes of science as the primary and overriding justification for its epistemically superior status.

Science, so the argument goes, simply “works”: it puts men on the Moon, builds aircraft that fly, and makes transgenic fish that glow in the dark. Ways of knowing that rely on appeals to authority, esoteric knowledge, or personal experience, are inferior precisely because they do not “work” in this way.

While I do think this sort of argument has some validity, I think the crude positivist goes too far in advocating practical utility as the defining feature of knowledge.

One simple problem with this approach is that many people think that prayer, mystical experiences, etc., “work” in a very real way: they pray to Jesus, and they feel God’s love pouring out over them. The crude positivist, of course, is unlikely to admit that as being a valid example of “working”, but all this shows is that science comes out best when judged by its own criteria of what it counts as legitimate “success”, while the types of “success” (e.g. drawing closer to God, becoming one with nature, etc.) defined by other ways of knowing are simply disregarded.

Beyond this issue of defining criteria for success, there is a deeper philosophical issue concerning the relationship between the “success” of a theory, and the “truth” of that theory.

Most of the examples of science “delivering results” are, properly understood, really applications of engineering, not science itself. Of course, engineers use scientific findings and theories, but there is nevertheless an important distinction between the development of theory and its practical application. This is important because some schools of thought in philosophy, especially the sort of instrumentalist, pragmatic viewpoints that crude positivists are most closely aligned with, argue that the ability of a theory to deliver successful applications is insufficient to validate the accuracy of that theory in describing the way the world truly is.

One example is that of Ptolemaic astronomy: it was capable of generating accurate predictions of the positions of the planets, despite the fact that its underlying model for reality (an Earth-centred cosmos with the planets orbiting about crystalline spheres) is completely wrong.

To take a more recent example, scientists and engineers still routinely use chemical and physical models which treat atoms as solid spheres interacting in accordance with the laws of classical mechanics. As a description of reality, this is entirely incorrect: atoms are mostly empty space, and what is not empty space consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which according to our best theories behave (very loosely) like smeared-out probability wave packets, evolving in accordance with the laws of quantum (not classical) mechanics. Notwithstanding this completely inaccurate description of the underlying reality, however, the “billiard balls” approach is still very useful and “delivers results” in a wide range of applications.

Such examples are one of the major arguments used by those philosophers who adhere to a position known as scientific anti-realism, which is the view that, while science produces very useful predictive models, it does not necessarily describe the way things “truly are”. Thus, according to this view, science is not in the business of finding “truth” per se, but merely of producing theories that are “empirically adequate” and useful for prediction and practical application.

My point here is not to argue that anti-realism is correct, or that science doesn’t describe reality. Rather my argument is that, either way, these considerations pose a problem for the simple pragmatism of crude positivists.

If, on the one hand, scientific anti-realism is false, and scientific theories do truly describe the way the world is, then the extreme focus on scientific theories being special because they “work” becomes difficult to justify, since under this view science is special not predominantly because it “works” but because it yields true descriptions of reality.

The simplistic pragmatism defence thus simply cannot work, and the fact that other disciplines (e.g. philosophy or theology) may not “deliver results” does not mean that they cannot accurately describe reality.

On the other hand, if scientific anti-realism is true, and scientific theories don’t necessary say much about the way reality truly is, then the crude positivist has no basis for critiquing non-scientific ways of knowing for not making predictions or “delivering results”. This is because these other ways of knowing (e.g. faith based) don’t necessarily claim to be able to provide predictive models, but claim to describe parts of reality as they truly are.

If science and faith, intuition, etc., are not even trying to do the same thing, the one attempting to generate useful models, the other not caring about predictive accuracy but about providing true descriptions of reality, then it is unclear how the crude positivists can even compare the two in the way they seem to want to.

This approach also seems hard to reconcile with the fact that many adherents of crude positivism do very clearly make truth claims about subjects like religion and the paranormal. If this form of pragmatism is correct, then science and non-science aren’t incompatible, but rather are incomparable, for they are not even trying to do the same thing.

Conclusion

Some people will doubtless read this piece as an attack upon the value of science, or a defence of pseudoscientific, faith-based or emotion-based methods of reasoning.

As I have said throughout this piece, however, this is not my intention at all. My goal is in fact to equip sceptics and rationalists to deliver a robust, cogent defence of the value of science and critical thinking in learning about the world, and the superiority of such methods over various rivals.

What concerns me is that the constellation of views that I here describe under the label “crude positivism” is quite popular among many rationalists and sceptics.

As I have argued, however, I think these views are philosophically naïve and very hard to rigorously defend. Worse, some of the more intelligent defenders of non-scientific practices, including religious apologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and defenders of various pseudosciences, are aware of the problems with such views, and will vigorously critique rationalists who espouse them.

I think we can answer their objections, but to do so requires a greater familiarity with philosophy and relevant methodological issues than many rationalists and sceptics have, especially when they so often dismiss these fields as irrelevant.

In order to advance the cause of science and rationality, therefore, we need to abandon crude positivism and replace it with a more sophisticated, thoughtful, and philosophically rigorous account of science and rationality.

James Fodor is studying science at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the blog The Godless Theist. 

From the Australian Rationalist (Melbourne), v. 103, Summer [December] 2016: 32 – 35. (Reblogged with permission of the author). 

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