A defense of naturalism—and scientism

Two weeks ago, Timothy Williamson, a professor of logic at Oxford University, published a remarkably wooly-headed attack on naturalism, “Naturalism and its limits” in the New York Times Opinionator section.  He decried naturalism as a philosophy on various unconvincing grounds, including the idea that using natural methods to investigate nature was tautological, “science” was ill-defined, there was no clear place for mathematics as a science, other methods of inquiry might discover truth, and so on.

Two days ago, Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher at Duke University, responded in a piece at the same site called “Why I am a naturalist.”  His response is succinct and devastating, and makes two main points:

  • Science wins because it works.  That’s a quote from Stephen Hawking, and Rosenberg, like me, agrees: we can ground a philosophical naturalism in the remarkable success of methodological naturalism in helping us understand nature, and the abject failure of any other methology, especially religion, to find the truth.  As Rosenberg notes:

But 400 years of scientific success in prediction, control and technology shows that physics has made a good start. We should be confident that it will do better than any other approach at getting things right.

Naturalists recognize that science is fallible. Its self-correction, its continual increase in breadth and accuracy, give naturalists confidence in the resources they borrow from physics, chemistry and biology. The second law of thermodynamics, the periodic table, and the principles of natural selection are unlikely to be threatened by future science. Philosophy can therefore rely on them to answer many of its questions without fear of being overtaken by events.

If you want to see why the success of methodological naturalism (the reliance on empirical methods to understand natural phenomena) can serve as a grounding for philosophical naturalism (the “worldview” that material and physical nature is all there is), read Barbara Forrest’s important essay, “Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism: clarifying the connection.”  She shows that we don’t really need an a priori philosophical justification for philosophical naturalism: the worldview is justified from the bottom up—by the success of methodological naturalism (i.e., science) in understanding the universe.

  • Science is the only real way of gaining knowledge about the world.  Yes, I risk being accused of scientism here, but if you construe “science” broadly—as the use of reason, observation, experiment, replication by independent observers, all heavily seasoned with doubt—then I see no other way of understanding our world and universe.  Literature and the other arts can help us empathize with the feelings of others, give us a new way of seeing, and share a sense of personal validation, but that is not knowledge.  As Rosenberg says:

“Why can’t there be things only discoverable by non-scientific means, or not discoverable at all?” Professor Williamson asked in his essay. His question may be rhetorical, but the naturalist has an answer to it: nothing that revelation, inspiration or other non-scientific means ever claimed to discover has yet to withstand the test of knowledge that scientific findings attain. What are those tests of knowledge? They are the experimental/observational methods all the natural sciences share, the social sciences increasingly adopt, and that naturalists devote themselves to making explicit. You can reject naturalists’ epistemology, or treat it as question begging, but you can’t accuse them of not having one.

Religion has an epistemology, too: dogma and personal revelation (seasoned with wish thinking) but in thousands of years it hasn’t vouchsafed us one bit of verifiable knowledge about reality.  And as for the arts:

Naturalism. . . won’t uncritically buy into Professor Williamson’s “default assumption … that the practitioners of a well-established discipline know what they are doing, and use the … methods most appropriate for answering its questions.” If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.

That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than foregoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.

Exactly.

87 Comments

  1. Microraptor
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    One of my YouTube subscriptions put it well “even if we discovered a new process of gaining knowledge that wasn’t science, we’d still have to test it scientifically.”

  2. Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I wish just one theist would propose some rigorous form of methodological supernaturalism. And then after that, present us with a findings of this methodological supernaturalism that overturns or better explains a finding in methodological naturalism.

    As far as I know, there are no religious claims (i.e. supernaturalism) that have debunked a scientific claim that has forced scientists to “retcon” their initial finding into metaphor or allegory. Religion is batting a big fat zero on that part. Why would we think that this would change any time soon? Following inductive inference to lead us to philosophical naturalism doesn’t seem improper; unless you want to claim that inductive inference itself is invalid (which some people have done and still do).

  3. penn
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Do most naturalists actually deny that some things may in fact be unknowable? I accept that as given. It is very likely that it is impossible for humans to ever fully comprehend the universe. Our brains and senses for survival in the African savanna, not unraveling the fundamental fabric of the universe. We made amazing strides in co-opting our cognitive faculties for understanding the cosmos, but that doesn’t mean it’s all comprehensible. That certainly doesn’t mean that anything but scientific reasoning will lead to acquiring the knowledge that is available to us.

    • Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Thanks to set theory, we can be absolutely certain that there are true facts which are impossible to know. Turing’s Halting Problem is a very famous such example. More down-to-earth, there are digits of π that will never be calculated because there aren’t enough resources in the universe to accomplish the feat.

      How far that extends is anybody’s guess. We may never, for example, figure out how to marry quantum and relativistic gravity (though that’s not how I’d place my bet).

      Cheers,

      b&

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        There is an excellent diagram in Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher Bach (it’s Figure 18 on page 71) showing the relationships between truths and falsehoods in axiomatic theorems. In Rumsfeldian fashion, there are reachable truths and falsehoods and unreachable truths and falsehoods, but the world withing the diagram is depicted in such a way that it is clear that reachable knowledge always has room to expand, there will always be space for it to fill.

    • CarlosT
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      It’s true that we’re built for the savanna, and that’s why certain abilities are easy and instinctive and others are difficult and have to be trained. For example, spoken language is pretty much default and any person without specific defects will be able to do it without instruction. Reading and writing, on the other hand, have to be acquired through training and unless opportunities for some sort of instruction is provided, a normal person will not acquire the skill. This applies to various kinds of thinking as well.

  4. Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    All the interesting, useful stuff in the universe is recursive. Science is the ultimate expression of recursion. And, not-so-coincidentally, anything that somehow “transcends” science will, though the recursive nature of science, be incorporated into science.

    Really, once the Scientific Method incorporated as its last step, “GOTO 1,” there suddenly wasn’t any room for any other intellectual discipline.

    Cheers,

    b&

  5. eric
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Good essay.
    I see at least one guy in the comments making the classic mistake and calling naturalsm (a kind of) ‘faith.’ Um, exactly the opposite. Empirical experience tells us this works as a method. So it is very rational to keep using it and expect it to work better than other methods…until some other method comes along and shows itself to be better.

    Scientists are naturalists for the same reason everyone types on keyboards and expects that action to produce a message: because it worked yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that….ad nauseum.

  6. Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    One doesn’t have to go all the way to pomo litcrit to acknowledge that some things that can fairly be called “knowledge” and not just “fun” that emerge from art criticism. For example, saying that there was something special and revolutionary about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is not mere opinion.

    I think that defining “science” so broadly that it includes any intellectual activity one thinks to be good is self-defeating. Anyone can play that game in any direction. Everything is politics, everything is art, everything is text, everything is economics, yadda yadda. All of these have been tried before. Words lose meaning if they are used in too broad of a way.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      I very much agree. Is good literary criticism – Empsom’s for example, when he is at his best – merely ‘fun’, which is merely a nice (and cowardly) way of saying ‘trivial’? And what of the arts themselves (as opposed to academic chat about the arts)? Are they merely ‘fun’? Is ‘Lear’ fun? Is ‘Macbeth’ fun? Are the poetry of, say, Mandelstam, the novels and stories of Kafka or Bulgakov or, say, Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’, the paintings of Van Gogh or Munch mere ‘fun’? Is John Clare’s great poem about his madness – ‘I am, yet what I am none cares or knows’ – or Henry King’s great exequy to his dead wife, or Faure’s or Verdi’s requiems ‘fun’? I have just finished performing a brilliant and appalling play, Ionesco’s ‘The Lesson’, which deeply upset quite a few members of our audiences – is that ‘fun’, too? I am sorry, but you should re-think that ‘Exactly’. Rosenberg seems quite as superficial as his obviously woolly-headed antagonist.

  7. FTFKDad
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Sir, I noticed when I went to read Prof. Rosenberg’s article that he has a book coming out on October 3rd – “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Based on the description on Amazon.com, looks like it will be a very interesting and enlightening read. One to look out for.

  8. Llwddythlw
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Bryan Magee has written cogently about what one might be able to say concerning the nature of human limitations in “Confessions of a philosopher”, a book that I would unhesitatingly recommend. In the final chapter, he has this to say about Kant, Schopenhauer and Popper. He was a close of acquaintance of Popper and had tried to discuss the matter with him.

    “A number of philosophers, of whom Kant and Schopenhauer may be the greatest but are by no means the only ones, have said things of the utmost interest and perceptiveness about the nature of human limitations and their implications both for our thinking and for what might be outside the range of our understanding. They demonstrate by their example that a person can write about such things without departing from honest and open rational argument, without trying to express what is inexpressible or soaring into mysticism, and without resorting to poetic utterance or religious assertions, and without claiming privileged insight – and still say something worth saying. And if they can, others may. (‘Well I can’t,’ said Popper.)”

  9. Jim Jones
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Science is how we force ourselves to tell the truth.

    Religion is how we lie to each other.

    • John Drake
      Posted January 31, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      Keep kidding yourself, Bucko!

  10. Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    On a side note, Williamson asked: “Why can’t there be things only discoverable by non-scientific means, or not discoverable at all?” It is most certainly plausible that there are things which are not discoverable at all. In fact, it’s probably likely. I always like to retreat back to the example that at some point in the distant future, the universe will be expanding so rapidly that galaxies will be moving apart much faster than the speed of light — some hypothetical future astronomers at that time would have no way of discovering the positions of “nearby” galaxies. It is completely undiscoverable, using science or any other epistemology!

    It’s a little trickier as to whether there are things which are undiscoverable by science, but discoverable by other means. I don’t rule out the possibility completely… but in any case, leaving that possibility open doesn’t help theism, because pretty much any meaningful theism has already been discovered to be false by science.

  11. Mike Brady
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I spend much of my time (as a philosopher working on evolution and classical American philosophy) defending naturalism as put forth and defended by John Dewey. However, Prof. Rosenberg’s defense of naturalism is not nearly as robust as implied on the WEIT blog. He makes some odd moves in his short essay and he simply gets Kant wrong. I realize it is a very short essay and I would not want to condemn Rosenberg without much more evidence but I would surely hesitate to associate myself too closely with such a short-sighted version of naturalism.
    First, Rosenberg has allowed for an unnecessary maybe even an unjustified break in human knowledge. He explicitly says that inquiry associated with science is “knowledge” and other things such as fiction are “fun”—but not knowledge. It is here where I would like some more evidence but this break seems suspiciously like a type of realism (Willfrid Sellars) that many naturalists would find difficult to accept. I would prefer a type of naturalism (Dewey and others have something to say here) where we need not make these types of divisions. Not only does this move by Rosenberg need some justification but it seems too much like older styles of pre-Darwinian philosophizing. It is much better to call both (science and fiction) types of inquiry.
    If they are both types of inquiry then we need not have a hierarchy as implied by Rosenberg but a pragmatic method. In many cases science is the best choice for certain questions and certain problems—but not always. In other cases, fiction or poetry are much more effective than science. And though this latter use could potentially be explained by science, this does not mean that scientific inquiry is better—in all cases—than fiction. More importantly that does not mean science equals knowledge and all other domains of inquiry are only “fun.”
    Although it is merely a philosophic point, Rosenberg gets his explanation of Kant wrong. When Kant discusses teleology in his Third Critique, he is speaking–explicitly–from a hypothetical position. He never said we could not explain purpose. What he said was that we could never see the world except through our own human filter. We will always see the world AS IF there were purpose whatever the actual case might be–and Kant frankly admitted we did not know what the actual case was. He was implying/describing our human limitations–especially when it comes to living nature Mathematics was different for Kant and this is why it was possible to have a Newton of physics but not a Newton of a blade of grass. As a side note—this discussion is still present in the philosophy of biology.

    • Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      I appreciate your caution to Rosenberg about being scientistic in his conception of naturalism, that is, his ruling out any non-scientific forms of knowledge. Presumably inquiry informed by fiction gets us knowledge about human values, motives, foibles, conflicts, etc. Still, when it comes to ascertaining facts about the world independent of human interests, science doesn’t seem to have any rivals. But theists and supernaturalists think it does, which is why they end up in supernaturalism.

      My thumbnail caution against scientism in the context of articulating naturalism as a worldview is at http://www.naturalism.org/landscape.htm#scientism

      • Lyndon
        Posted September 19, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        Tom, this gets somewhat complicated. Asking questions about one’s self, there is a sense in which fictional and more metaphorical accounts help us as individuals understand the world and other people and relationships better. If they help us ascertain knowledge about other people “better” than science, it is because science (cognitive science and psychology, e.g.) is far from being able to make large scale and specific judgments about the more complex human behaviors and relationships. The idea that such knowledge about other people is best found in fiction is probably only a pragmatic consideration at this moment in time. Similarly, knowing that, say, pushing this lever brings food, is an important thing to understand; and it is every bit as much knowledge as all of the physical manifestations of the act (gravity, e.g.). I would say fiction at this moment in time is providing pragmatic knowledge about human relations and our selves that are open to being explained by “science” (neuroscience of the future, but see my note below about linguistics), but that for the time being is best understood and easily transferable within the fictional or simply intersubjective, social realm. Overtime, taking science as broadly construed (including simple empirical and social knowledge), there is no reason to claim that such things are non-scientific. But, maybe I am taking science to too wide of a level reflection.

        • Posted September 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

          Good stuff, thanks. But I wonder if science will ever replace, in practical everyday contexts, the sort of direct, intentional stance type of intersubjective knowledge we have of each other that’s communicated in regular social encounters and in fiction, drama, etc. Not that there’s likely anything in principle unascertainable by science about what’s transpiring in human minds, but science might not provide the the right level or type of description to be of practical use to us. As you say, it’s complicated…

          • Lyndon
            Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            No, your right. There are practical stances towards what we do, even of complex things that science could understand if it wanted to, that is going to be best not to interrogate. Just because the answer will not be anything remarkable, the information is in a sense unnecessary to probe, and we allow our social structures to help guide us. There will never be a reason to wholly map out and understand how an individual responds to every event in their life, though I accept that science could (in principle way in the future) do that- that probably holds for complex AI as well. Now, as we interrogate and understand, at least in general some of those interactions, it will help us organize ourselves and create better human beings. I think books and arguments, like Eagleman’s Incognito, show how such knowledge can help.

          • Microraptor
            Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            “But I wonder if science will ever replace, in practical everyday contexts, the sort of direct, intentional stance type of intersubjective knowledge we have of each other that’s communicated in regular social encounters and in fiction, drama, etc.”

            Let’s hope that it does instead of the continual reliance on armchair psychology and “common sense” that we have now, since those methods are far less accurate at assessing behaviors and motivations than is commonly believed. They’re also highly subjective and have a huge variance between people- what’s “common sense” to a poor person from East LA isn’t the same to a rich socialite from Tokyo, nor to a Maasai cattle herder.

            • Posted September 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

              Here’s a hilarious example of how science might replace normal talk provided by Paul and Patricia Churchland:

              “One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.'”

              http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm#_ftn11

            • Posted September 19, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

              “Common Sense” only works as a book title.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

        Presumably inquiry informed by fiction gets us knowledge about human values, motives, foibles, conflicts, etc.

        show me how one gains definable knowledge from the employment of fiction that does NOT end up needing to be tested against realism for veracity.

        example:

        Modelers often utilize unrealistic assumptions in order to flesh out new ideas, that might lead to new directions of thought.

        However, those new directions of thought must then be verified to be applicable in reality by people actually testing them to see if they are repeatable, explanatory, and predictive.

        so, no, fiction is a SUBSET of realism, if anything.

        it is not a separate area of knowledge in and of itself.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted September 19, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

          or, if you will, fiction is a tool we use to examine reality from different perspectives, like a hammer, and it is the feedback from using that that gives us knowledge.

          we don’t gain knowledge from the hammer itself.

    • H.H.
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      In many cases science is the best choice for certain questions and certain problems—but not always. In other cases, fiction or poetry are much more effective than science.

      Science provides knowledge about objective reality. I bet if you looked closely at the kind of knowledge fiction or poetry provides, you’d see that it function more like a mirror held up to ourselves whose “truths” are entirely subjective. So that’s the dividing line between science and religion or art. If you want to have knowledge about external reality, to have any insight as what’s “out there” as opposed to what’s in your own head, then you need science. Science is the walking stick we use to tap around in the dark.

      • Mike Brady
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        What type of naturalism has “external,” “objective,” “mirror,” built into it without falling into just the dogmatic assertions which it is accused of…? It is just that type of language and the belief that science equals reality that a fully fallible naturalism should avoid.

        • H.H.
          Posted September 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          “Fallible” naturalism? I think you mean “wildly successful” naturalism.

        • Microraptor
          Posted September 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

          Mike, it would be easier to take your arguments seriously if there were any evidence to back them up, but every test possible indicates that there is an objective external universe that has set physical properties that operate in predictable ways.

          The Matrix was just a movie.

  12. E.A. Blair
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I intend to devote considerable time in pursuit of Naturism.

    • Posted September 21, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      “Of course I’m nude. I’m a scientist.”

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted September 21, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        I wondered how long it would take before someone noticed that I’d slipped that in.

        • ossicle
          Posted September 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          I’m sure it attracted notice from other people sooner, but fishing for acknowledgment or praise of one’s intended cleverness it offputting, so it took a day or two for someone to accommodate you.

  13. GM
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I never understood why people use scientism as a dirty word and why scientists feel compelled to treat it as one too instead of defending it. To the best of our knowledge, science is both all we need and the only working tool we have to understand the world around us. Obviously, this is a subject to revision, but again, to the best of our knowledge, it’s how things are. Then scientism becomes not just acceptable but almost obligatory and very far from something we should be ashamed of. Yet we have allowed the term to become a dirty word and with it the set of worldviews it is applied to. Intellectual cowardice and the refusal to stand up for your ideas can never bring you anything good in the long run

    • Posted September 19, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      When the religious use “scientism” as a dirty word, they’re almost admitting that religion is not a way of finding truth, and the best they can do is try to drag science down to the level of religion by finding irrational aspects to it.

    • Nick Matzke
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      “I never understood why people use scientism as a dirty word and why scientists feel compelled to treat it as one too instead of defending it. To the best of our knowledge, science is both all we need and the only working tool we have to understand the world around us.”

      A lot of people are reacting to earlier decades, which often featured confident “scientists” making social “observations” and prescriptions that turned out to be half-baked at best and pernicious at worst. E.g. eugenics, Marxism, BF Skinner’s behaviorism, the numerous sins of anthropology interacting with nonwhite races, etc.

      The way scientism fans talk, it often sounds like they think the world would be a better place if we got rid of democracy and had some appointed Smart Science People (TM) make the decisions instead. (This kind of fantasy can be traced all the way back to Plato’s ideal of a “philosopher king”.) That’s what sends people running away from scientism.

      If someone wants to give scientism a more positive connotation, some kind of stipulation would need to be added, like, “science is the most reliable way for determining the truth about the physical world, but it is not a panacea for all problems, particularly political problems which need political solutions, which happen best in the context of democracy and respect for human rights.”

  14. Posted September 19, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Re scientism, I don’t think naturalists need claim that the only valid type of knowledge is scientific. There are domains of knowledge and know-how related to human interests – ethical, aesthetic and political, among others – that are not science-based. Such domains aren’t primarily in the business of explaining or describing, science’s specialty, but rather in doing, deciding, enjoying, communicating and cooperating. This is not to say science can’t describe (or attempt to describe) regularities of human behavior in these domains, or that it can’t help settle empirical questions raised within them; it can, at least to some extent, if it suits our purposes. But deciding questions about ethical and aesthetic principles, and deciding between competing political agendas, are not empirical projects since they essentially involve normative considerations about values, not matters of fact.

    Of course there’s nothing supernatural about these domains of knowledge, so naturalists need not object to them, it’s just that they are of necessity tied to human interests. Whereas scientific, empirical knowledge aims at being as independent as possible from our biases and perceptual limitations. What supernaturalists do, in departing from empiricism in their epistemology, is to permit those biases to color factual claims about the world, so they end up in supernaturalism.

    • GM
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      But deciding questions about ethical and aesthetic principles, and deciding between competing political agendas, are not empirical projects since they essentially involve normative considerations about values, not matters of fact.

      The often-used argument “Science can’t tell you anything about human affairs” is totally false.

      Competing political agendas are (in the ideal situation) competing proposal for getting from A to B where A is where society is and B is where society wants to get. Their evaluation and the decision which one is more likely to get a society from A to B is not only a problem well suited for science but a problem only science is best qualified to tackle; not ideological commitments, special interests, uninformed masses, etc. Not just that, the derivation of those political agendas should in an ideal world be based on scientific knowledge and understanding because so much of policy is about dealing with things in the physical world – moving matter around and controlling human behavior. Those are again areas where science is the best thing there is to guide decision-making

      Ethical principles do not exist in a vacuum, they again refer to events and objects in the real world and this is the domain of science. As a result science has a lot to say about them. If you believe that there is a soul that God puts in the zygote at the moment of conception and which is sacred, then the position that no abortion should be allowed is undoubtedly the correct ethical position. But we know thanks to science that the likelihood of the above being true is extremely small. The only reason people object to science “messing” with ethics is because they don’t like the inevitable conclusions that follow from that. But that’s not the fault of science neither is it a reason to prevent it from guiding the development of ethical principles. People need to grow up, simple as that.

      The question of aesthetics is meaningless

      • Janet Holmes
        Posted September 19, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

        There have been scientific investigations of aesthetics. One which springs to mind was a study of landscape preferences. People prefer the landscapes they were raised in but their second preference is for a treed plain like the African savannah we all evolved upon. The marketing journals are full of scientific investigations of aesthetics.

      • Posted September 19, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

        Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say “the question of aesthetics is meaningless”?

        • GM
          Posted September 19, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

          I mean that one says “science can’t tell you anything about aesthetic principles” this is a meaningless statement because there isn’t anything to be told about them. Science can in principle explain how aesthetic preferences are formed in the brain, but there isn’t any question to be answered there – whose aesthetic principles are more valid is an almost by definition meaningless question so the objection itself is meaningless.

          • Posted September 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

            Juan’s comment below notwithstanding, I think you’re right to say that science can inform us as we grapple with ethical issues.

            But similarly, aesthetics do not exist in a vacuum. Just because science may nit be able to dictate which color should be your favorite, or which author, or which composer, doesn’t mean it has nothing to contribute to epistemology in the arts. As Sam Harris might say, the arts are like nutrition. Science can tell us what foods are healthy, and that healthy foods are better for our bodies than unhealthy foods. The only concession we need to make is that it can’t tell us whether we should eat an apple or a bowl of oatmeal.

            • Posted September 20, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

              Science runs rampant through the arts.

              From its very beginnings in ancient Greece, Western art music has been primarily an exercise in crafting mathematical expressions. Everything, from the ratios of the pitches to the duration of the notes to the organization of the motifs to the large structure of a work, is all based on mathematical expressions. You just can’t do music without an insane amount of math, even if you don’t realize that that’s what you’re doing. And all of that has been one giant systematized exploration of the aesthetical nature of the human aural system.

              Visual artists similarly must master the physical and psychological aspects of color theory, and generally have to be pretty good anatomists and structural engineers as well.

              Dance, as with any athletic enterprise, is nothing without a firm command of physiology.

              And you’d be hard pressed to find a better exploration of sociology and psychology than in the theater.

              Just because the arts aren’t devoted to discovering facts about the universe that’re as fundamental as those pursued by physics and biology doesn’t mean that they’re undisciplined ramblings of unreality.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted September 21, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

                Everything, from the ratios of the pitches to the duration of the notes to the organization of the motifs to the large structure of a work, is all based on mathematical expressions. You just can’t do music without an insane amount of math, even if you don’t realize that that’s what you’re doing. And all of that has been one giant systematized exploration of the aesthetical nature of the human aural system.

                Agree. I like to describe music as an aural representation of logic. And what is math but logic?

                I recall a thread perhaps a couple of years ago in which I claimed the music/math meme can be overdone. I think it’s important to note that math’s relationship to music is descriptive, not prescriptive. Well, most of the time. Many composers (most notably Bach) aimed for reaching climaxes or other important events at the point in the piece that corresponded to the golden ratio.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted September 22, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

                Music is surely not – whatever Pythagoras might have said – a sort of higher mathematics expressed in sound, although naturally mathematics is involved in it, as it is involved in virtually anything and everything. As Pierre Bourdieu rightly said it is the ‘most corporeal’ of the arts. I remember a student of the great Ilona Kabos (who taught at Juilliard)- I think it was the Korean pianist Tong Il-Han, who won the Leventritt Prize many years ago – telling me of her response to the New York Jewish boy whose proud mother brought him along to play for her in the hope that she would accept him as a pupil. The boy played whatever he played faultlessly, with no doubt all the mathematical relations perfectly in order, and Kabos said to him, ‘Darlink’ (she spoke like that – I met her once) ‘zat vas vonderful, but vatever you do, don’t become a musician, become a lawyer, a banker, anysing you like, but not a musician.’ I should have liked to add ‘mathematician’ to ‘lawyer’ and ‘banker’, but that would be to put words she didn’t say into her mouth, and the point seems clear enough without my misrepresnting her.

              • Posted September 22, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

                While I’m completely with you that a “perfect” mechanical performance is pointless, the foundation of music is almost purely mathematical.

                I’ll even go so far as to say that if you can’t give an emotionless, mechanical performance of a work, then you’re equally incapable of doing it justice.

                Make no mistrake, what makes music worth listening to is the passion, the emotional expression of the musician. But the rigid mathematical skeleton is what gives music its support and what makes possible the tension and stress when the musician plays or fights with it.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tim Harris
                Posted September 22, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps, and yet I recall the distinction Andre Gedalge (acute accents missing) made between the fugue as an academic exercise, for which he had the utmost contempt, and the fugue as a musical composition. And regarding the playing of a piece in an emotionless, mechanical way, in teaching actors how to speak Shakespeare, for example, one often, as a heuristic device, gets them to speak lines as plainly and unemotionally as possible so that they can first of all understand what is being said and start from the thought expressed by the lines(and not from some emotional imposition, which is the approach of the inexperienced or incompetent actor), and then genuinely feel the shape described by the phrasing and argument of the lines, and finally – and this is most important – understand how the emotion of the lines is inherent in the lines themselves and manifests itself naturally and directly if the lines are spoken well. I am not a musician, but my wife is a very good pianist, and she would agree that the same applies to music. One of the great weaknesses of Japanese pianists, by the way, is their ability to play pieces mechanically perfectly but without any understanding of what the music is saying.

              • Lenoxus
                Posted September 22, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                One of the great weaknesses of Japanese pianists, by the way, is their ability to play pieces mechanically perfectly but without any understanding of what the music is saying.

                One of the really nice things about scientism is its rejection of these sorts of anecdotal generalizations without evidence. Got any?

              • Tim Harris
                Posted September 22, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

                Among other things, an article in the Yomiuri Shinbun that my wife, who is Japanese and a very good pianist, came across this spring, in which it was said that the jury of the International Chopin Competitition would henceforth be asked to attach less importance to technical facility on account of the numbers of Japanese contestants they were getting who were merely technically excellent and not musically interesting. My wife was delighted since she, along with other good Japanese pianists and piano teachers I know here in Japan, feels that there is too great an emphasis on mere technical facility at Japanese music colleges – an emphasis which is supported by a ‘competition culture’ into which young people who study instruments are forced from a very young age; and constant playing in competitions too often leads to a sort of ‘safe’ and technically facile playing that seeks principally to avoid mistakes. My wife has spent much of her career, in her playing and in her teaching, standing against this approach. I hope that that is scientistic enough for you.

                Perhaps I should add – not, I think, for Ben Goren’s benefit since he will probably know this – that the Andre Gedalge I mentioned earlier was a celebrated professor of counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 19th and early 20th century; he was the teacher of, among others, the wonderful musician and man, George Enescu.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted September 23, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

                But I do want to take issue with another remark of Ben Goren’s:

                …what makes music worth listening to is the passion, the emotional expression of the musician. But the rigid mathematical skeleton is what gives music its support and what makes possible the tension and stress when the musician plays or fights with it…

                It is simply not the case that the performance of music consists in an abstract and inexpressive structure to which the performer ‘adds’, from the outside as it were, emotional expression. Good music is in itself emotionally expressive and it is the task of the performer first of all to discover and express the emotion that inheres in the music. I find your division between piece and performer wholly unconvincing, I’m afraid.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted September 23, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink

                Sorry about the woozy first sentence in my second paragraph, but the meaning’s clear enough, I think.

      • Juan
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 4:46 am | Permalink

        RE: Ethical principles, I think you are almost certainly wrong in your line of thinking there. Facts do not imply values, so in your abortion example the existence of God WOULDN’T make the rejection of abortion the “rational” position, and this is something that has been known since the time of Plato:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma

        The same standard applies to questions of values raised by ethical research. Facts can help us determine values if that’s what we wish to do, but they are in reality two separate categories. See for ref:

        http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-moral/

      • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        A very simple example of this in politics. Political ideology says “cutting taxes create jobs”. Reality says that during the eight years after taxes were raised in 1992, 22 million jobs were created. And during the eight years after taxes were cut in 2001, 6 million jobs were lost. Measuring what actually happens can help correct political agendas (or at least it should).

        Now, to the extent that “cutting taxes” is not about creating jobs but redistributing wealth up the food chain, then the political agenda will not be corrected. But at least empirical evidence exposes the real intent of the political agenda.

  15. Lyndon
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I find there are important lessons within postmodernism, poststructuralism, discourse theory, and the what not, that gets lossed in much of the walling-off of those practices. The textual analysis of social relations, the construction of discourses, and simply the way that language structures how we behave, is something naturalism and cognitive science has to come to grips with. The interplay between the social creation of complex beings, very much steeped in language, and how those individuals, those brains, in turn produce and change the social world and the natural world, is a major factor for understanding human beings. There is no more reason to believe that linguistic and discursive analysis is anymore useless to understanding how human beings behave and how the world works than, say, whether mathematical representations effect behavior. Where postmodernism is digging into the relationship between social structures and relationships, and how such social and linguistic uses effects the individual, have the capacity to help us understand human beings better. In the end, as we do our best to try to reduce the mind to brain, the only acceptable movement, the relationships and processes of representation that we find are going to be extremely complex (given that no two brains have ever been structured the same, and the same brain has not been structured the same way at multiple times, with temporal problematics notwithstanding), and much of that complexity surely comes from linguistic and social functions and relationships. Our inability to dig into these complex relational structures is why fiction and allegory and intersubjective persuasion is still the best way to attain certain knowledge about human beings.

  16. Curt Cameron
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Whenever I hear “Oh yeah? Science doesn’t know everything,” my reply is “Maybe not, but there is an external reality, and everything we know – everything we can know – about this reality can only be found through science.”

    • Kevin
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      …well, there’s also blindly groping around in the dark…that occasionally works.

      • Jeff Engel
        Posted September 20, 2011 at 5:48 am | Permalink

        Blindly groping around in the dark is a fine, honorable practice! It’s just science with very, very bad instrumentation. Someone needs some grant money, that’s all.

  17. Matt Penfold
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I really do find it puzzling anyone can still consider theology as a method of obtaining knowledge.

    The simple observation that after thousands of years there is not agreement between various denominations of one religion as what it is true, let alone between religions should suffice to tell us that theology is no help. Now there can be disagreement within science, but most times those involved in the disagreement will be able to agree on what would constitute evidence that would settle the matter. Theologists do not seeem to be able to do even that.

  18. Dominic
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Of course the John Grays of this world will say it does not matter – the belief is what counts not the actual truth. ! Thanks for the link to the essay, will reserve for future consumption.

  19. Linda Jean
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    what has the selfish gene explained? the magic of reality? is dawkins a scientist? or an atheist….couple hundred years late?

    • GM
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      The selfish gene concept has provided some of the most fundamental insights into the nature of the human condition. Much more important insights than pretty much anything any philosopher has ever come up with (theologians are out of the discussion altogether because not only have they not contributed anything, they have actively hindered progress in that area)

      • Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        Compare the number of people alive, healthy, and happy today thanks to the insights of genetics who would have otherwise died horrible deaths with those who did die horrible deaths because of the “insight” of a theologian that, say, when Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the Temple it meant that all traces of the international Jewish banking conspiracy against the Volk should be eradicated.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Janet Holmes
          Posted September 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          The irony about Hitler’s Jewish Banker obsession is that he was half right, he just focused on the wrong half, it was not international Jews who were the danger to society but international bankers! Just think, without his cultural mistrust of Jews he might have been able to understand the real hazards facing the world, bankers without adequate regulation who can destroy the entire world economy in a few decades.

    • Jeff Engel
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      The selfish gene has explained the evolution and persistence of phenotypic effects that are neutral or detrimental to the individual expressing them, by means of their utility in the persistence and spread of the genes responsible for them. These effects may instead benefit relatives likely to carry the gene, or the gene’s likelihood of entering the next generation versus competing alleles. More broadly, it’s explained things like why we love our children, even how love is possible. That should impress any romantic not wedded to obscurity.

      I’ll call that one nice chunk of the magic of reality, myself. It’s a tiny portion of so much magic, mind you, but it’s be silly to expect one concept to sweep it all in.

      Dawkins is a scientist and an atheist. The classes overlap quite a lot – far more than chance would dictate, in fact. He’s also rather topical, so I figure he’s just about right on time. (Mostly – he may be 20-30 years behind on the topic of elevator proposition ethics. But hey, human.)

  20. Bernard Ortcutt
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Naturalists need not forgo literary criticism, either. Some literary criticism is just observation and theorizing about works of fiction. (Nothing unscientific about that.) Other literary criticism is closer to creative writing (i.e. creating more fiction) than an attempt to describe pre-existing facts of works of fiction. So, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Both are perfectly compatible with a methodological naturalist approach.

  21. MadScientist
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    What surprises me about Williamson is that he’s such a simpleton than he cannot understand something so simple as using nature to study nature is by no means a tautology. Is Williamson expecting some magical creature which is not part of nature to come along and tell us all about nature? Oxford should be embarrassed to employ such an imbecile.

  22. Steve Smith
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    naturalism’s greatest challenge “is to find a place for mathematics.” … What are numbers? How can we have the certainty about them that math reveals? … mathematicians and scientists don’t care much about these problems

    Good article overall, but it’s a weak defense of naturalism and scientism that indulges the other side in what amounts an argument that math and logic are arbitrary choices. Naturalism assumes that nature is constrained to follow logically consistent laws. We believe this because both we observe it and because the laws themselves wouldn’t work if this weren’t true—no hidden variables.

    No one but the academic philosophers cares about the technicality of how to classify mathematics. Naturalism stands or falls on the basis of observations, not whether or not one accepts the law of the exluded middle.

  23. jose
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    But you have said in the past you would accept evidence for God. That is, evidence for the supernatural. That goes against all types of naturalism.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      ???

      Don’t you confuse empiricism (here, naturalism) with physicalism (absence of supernaturalism)?

      • jose
        Posted September 19, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        No, but thanks for asking.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      But you have said in the past you would accept evidence for God.

      yes.

      That is, evidence for the supernatural.

      non sequitor.

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Williamson:

    “One challenge to naturalism is to find a place for mathematics. [...]

    On the other hand, if we do not count pure mathematics a science, we thereby exclude mathematical proof by itself from the scientific method, and so discredit naturalism. For naturalism privileges the scientific method over all others, and mathematics is one of the most spectacular success stories in the history of human knowledge.”

    As others have noted, Williamson discounts the validation of science in its success, and with that the similar validation of its methods. If you do that, and math is a method, the problem of understanding why using math and why it is successful disappears.

    In contrast to many or most mathematicians, as a physicist I can’t see the dualistic idea of platonism in mathematical objects.

    – Many results in computer science (CS) is semi-empirical, such as the equal probability choice in adding the next bit in Chaitin’s constant. (CS is satisfied with 50 % correctness as a start, and can make do with a “physical coin throw” here.)

    – More importantly, formal results can always be wrong. Humans makes mistakes. They are, horror of all horrors, uncertain and revisionary. Just as empiricism.

    – Even more importantly, CS can help show results that formal methods can’t prove or even check. You introduce more uncertainty.

    – Even worse, going quantum in CS means you use more classical bits than a formal result. You can in theory prove results on structures that are exponentially larger than the factual state of the universe can contain.

    – Finally, there is no axiomatic proof theory that can, as of yet, substitute all of science. So proof is still heuristic agreed on.* (And even with an axiomatic theory you would have to agree with *those* axioms and proofs.)

    Some mathematicians like Chaitin (and apparently philosophers like Quine) thinks math is semi-empirical. I can’t agree more.

    ————-
    * Whether these heuristics success are measured within science, as Williamson thinks, or in combination with physics and other sciences is neither here nor there. I would think both, what is successfully applied shores up use and development.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      “no axiomatic proof theory that can, as of yet, substitute all of science” – no axiomatic proof theory that can, as of yet, substitute all of math proofing.

  25. Lenoxus
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Science’s success has earned it the enviable rank of a double standard.

    Many times have I heard someone lament that “They still don’t have a cure for cancer” (or, on a less-lethal scale, “… for the common cold”). Or that evolutionary biology is flawed because it can’t predict exactly what future evolution will look like. Or most commonly of all, that we don’t know what caused the universe.

    All three of these issues may by mistaken ways of looking at the problems. “Cancer” and “the common cold” are terms for such a wide array of illness that it may make just as much sense to complain that medicine hasn’t “cured disease”. Meanwhile, our everyday concepts of cause and effect may not apply to the universe as a whole, and even if a suitable answer is or has been found, it’s not going to satisfy someone who knows little of the relevant science anyway. (I’ve heard that a universe is an inevitable result of gravitation, and that we have “zero net energy” or something like that, but I have no idea what those really mean.)

    But that’s a side point. My main point is simply that whatever problems you think science fails to solve are completely effin’ irrelevant unless your amazing magical methodology has solved them. I think a big part of why this isn’t obvious to people is that science has already done so much problem-solving, and humans have a tendency to take stuff for granted.

    That’s why xxx can raise the question of “xxx that can’t be discovered” as if it were a problem for science, when it’s in fact a problem for anything that attempts to solve the big questions. Duh! Yet thanks to the success of science, “discover” has almost become synonymous with “scientifically discover.” Almost no one expects that future mystic revelations or dug-up prophecies will provide us with highly concrete answers about reality; for a long time now that’s been naturalism’s job.

    This point also applies when theists attack atheism for failing to provide, eg, a basis for morality. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t, but divine command theory (the only possible flavor of morality that is inaccessible from an atheist stance) is bogus either way.

  26. Lenoxus
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Science’s success has earned it the enviable rank of a double standard.

    Many times have I heard someone lament that “They still don’t have a cure for cancer” (or, on a less-lethal scale, “… for the common cold”). Or that evolutionary biology is flawed because it can’t predict exactly what future evolution will look like. Or most commonly of all, that we don’t know what caused the universe.

    All three of these issues may by mistaken ways of looking at the problems. “Cancer” and “the common cold” are terms for such a wide array of illness that it may make just as much sense to complain that medicine hasn’t “cured disease”. Meanwhile, our everyday concepts of cause and effect may not apply to the universe as a whole, and even if a suitable answer is or has been found, it’s not going to satisfy someone who knows little of the relevant science anyway. (I’ve heard that a universe is an inevitable result of gravitation, and that we have “zero net energy” or something like that, but I have no idea what those really mean.)

    But that’s a side point. My main point is simply that whatever problems you think science fails to solve are completely effin’ irrelevant unless your amazing magical methodology has solved them. I think a big part of why this isn’t obvious to people is that science has already done so much problem-solving, and humans have a tendency to take stuff for granted.

    That’s why Williamson can raise the question of “things that can’t be discovered” as if it were a problem for science, when it’s in fact a problem for anything that attempts to solve the big questions. Duh! Yet thanks to the success of science, “discover” has almost become synonymous with “scientifically discover.” Almost no one expects that future mystic revelations or dug-up prophecies will provide us with highly concrete answers about reality; for a long time now that’s been naturalism’s job.

    This point also applies when theists attack atheism for failing to provide, eg, a basis for morality. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t, but divine command theory (the only possible flavor of morality that is inaccessible from an atheist stance) is bogus either way.

    • Lenoxus
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Almost no one expects that future mystic revelations or dug-up prophecies will provide us with highly concrete answers about reality; for a long time now that’s been naturalism’s job.

      I should add that this is part of why so many discussions about the value of science devolve into questions about whether anyone can know anything, mannnn. Ultimately, that’s the only way to defend the relevancy of non-scientific methodologies, at least the ones that try to do science’s job (theoogy, but maybe not sculpture).

      It would be funny if we lived in a world where it worked that way viz religion; “Just because angels interact with us every day doesn’t mean they necessarily exist! Rationalism isn’t everythig, you know!”

    • Ichthyic
      Posted September 19, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      My main point is simply that whatever problems you think science fails to solve are completely effin’ irrelevant unless your amazing magical methodology has solved them.

      Red herrings are quite popular with religious apologists.

      Canned, fresh, smoked, doesn’t matter.

  27. Ichthyic
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    using natural methods to investigate nature was tautological

    *headdesk*

    so many things wrong with that, including the fact that the person who said it doesn’t understand what a tautology is.

    sorry, but anyone who actually said something like that would immediately be relegated to that section of my brain that tells me not to take anything that person says seriously ever again.

    I have yet to regret doing this with similar blowhards.

  28. Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    “Science wins because it works.”
    What else is there to say? It’s pretty hard to argue with that, especially while sitting on a computer.

  29. Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    I find the piece by Williamson incredibly badly argued. Almost every sentence is logically questionable. I thought philosophers are supposed to be good at logic.

    How does excluding mathematical proof from science discredit naturalism?! It depends on how math is used. Purely axiomatic math is not science. A theorem in algebraic topology or number theory is not science. It does not discredit naturalism because it says nothing about the natural world. Algebraic topology or other mathematical objects, however, can be used to model natural phenomena. In those cases mathematical proofs are part of the scientific method. There are theorems in physics or even in biology (population genetics, for example). Those proofs are analytical in the sense that the conclusions follow strictly from the assumptions. The assumptions, however, are subject to empirical verification. This really isn’t very hard to understand, you know?

    It’s only a problem if you see math in its highly idealized form, the way that philosophers like to think about math. Math in practice is much more complicated. Lots of branches of mathematics are not axiomatic (areas in combinatorics and equations, for example) and not purely about proving theorems. Finding counter examples to conjectures (which is empirical) is important in math. Solving a new equation is important in math. Making estimation is important in math (ie. in calculus and analysis). Exhaustively cataloging things is useful in math. Simulation is important in math. Optimizing a set of equations is important in math. Inventing algorithms is important in math. Making guesses are important in math. These methods are all very similar to science.

    The reason why philosophers are having trouble with math is because they know very little math. Set theory and logic and almost nothing else. Mention differential equation or graph theory to philosophers, they say meh, that’s not real math. That’s the problem. The margin between pure math and applied math is fuzzy and is narrowing every year. Why is it anyone else’s problem if philosophers can’t see math (or science) as what it really is? I encountered this many times. If we can’t figure out how math fit into science, something is wrong with science. Really? Maybe it’s because something is wrong with philosophy? Why is it anyone else’s problem?

  30. Solomon Wagstaff
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    “…as a calm darkens among water-lights”
    –Wallace Stevens

  31. BradW
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    Did I miss something? The following is from the second paragraph of the Williamson article:

    Thus naturalism becomes the belief that there is only whatever the scientific method eventually discovers, and (not surprisingly) the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method. THAT IS NO TAUTOLOGY.(upper case mine) Why can’t there be things only discoverable by non-scientific means, or not discoverable at all?

    And that is the only place in the article where the root “tauto” is used.(?????)

  32. abb3w
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I’d add a few more qualifiers on the second (“the universe we experience” rather than “the world”), but I’m prone to pedantry. I suspect those versions are probably more effective for use in soundbites than anything I’d come up with.

  33. Dave Ricks
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    The public reads the label “scientism” as criticism because:

    Humans are more concerned with ethics than electrons, with laughter than leptons; more interested in changing circumstances than in universal constants. — Daniel Harbour, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism, p. 43

    and the public thinks of “science” as science narrowly construed. And even if someone launched a public outreach campaign to explain to the public, “No, we’re scientismists of science broadly construed” (as if the public could follow that), the public would still not see what science broadly construed has to do with the ethics and laughter in their lives.

    And on top of these general problems with scientism, Jerry says:

    Literature and the other arts can help us empathize with the feelings of others, give us a new way of seeing, … but that is not knowledge.

    So acquiring empathy is not acquiring knowledge? And a new way of seeing is not knowledge? If this is scientism, then I support the public rejecting it.

    • Lenoxus
      Posted September 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      So acquiring empathy is not acquiring knowledge? And a new way of seeing is not knowledge? If this is scientism, then I support the public rejecting it.

      Perhaps that’s an example of “knowledgeism”. At least, my feeling is that even though knowledge is good (and all knowledge is ultimately scientific), not everything good is an instance of knowledge.

      For example, perhaps empathy is an application of knowledge (or of ethics) but not a kind of “knowledge” itself. Meanwhile, I’m on the fence about whether or not new perspectives technically are “knowledge”.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted September 22, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

        A key source of confusion is our language of “knowledge” conflates knowing that (e.g., knowing that the Earth goes around the Sun) with knowing how (e.g., knowing how the tone of a friend’s voice on the phone means they’re feeling one thing or another) — and my objection is scientism implicitly validating knowing that, and implicitly invalidating knowing how — with implicitly being part of the problem with scientism.

        Jerry should note: The result is a scientismist would say, “Louis Armstrong didn’t know what he was doing” — a trope that makes me rage with the force of a thousand suns. I cannot write enough to say how much I hate that trope. This is why scientism is bad and Jerry should feel bad.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted September 23, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

          It is not merely a matter of ‘knowing how’ being opposed to ‘knowing that'; if, for example, our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and those few hunter-gatherers who remain today)did not know, through careful observation, ‘that’ certain animals behaved in certain ways they wouldn’t have got any dinner or they would have been something (or someone) else’s dinner. It is really rather silly and naive to claim that only knowledge that has been tested in a properly scientific way can be properly called knowledge. Ordinary language, which gave us the words ‘know’ and ‘knowledge’, and ordinary experience – our knowledge of people we know well, for example – are not things to be airily dismissed as having been, or as being in the process of being, superceded by properly scientific knowledge, which in fact grows out of the matrix of our ordinary knowledge of the world.


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] a fun discussion, and worthwhile; Coyne focuses especially on epistomology, on what we know and how we know [...]

  2. [...] Amen. Jerry Coyne weighs in and his response is worth reading. [...]

  3. [...] of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne has an interesting post over at Why Evolution Is True, which hits on something I care a lot about: science and religion.  [...]

  4. [...] A defense of naturalism—and scientism « Why Evolution Is True. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  5. [...] la postura naturalista. Esta contienda filosófica ha sido seguida por el biólogo Jerry Coyne, que comparte la crítica de Rosenberg, y por el filósofo de la biología John Wilkins, que le dedica un sendo [...]

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