A new definition of scientism

The Rationally Speaking blog run by Massimo Pigliucci has long been critical of “scientism,” a term whose meaning has been unclear, but one that Dr.Pigliucci has applied with abandon to the New Atheists, whom he sees as philosophically unlettered.  I’ve paid a visit to the site this weekend, and found two things to comment on, so please don’t accuse me of being on jihad against that blog.

The first issue, which I want to discuss today, is a guest post called “Scientism as scientistic belief“, by Paul M. Paolini, who’s identified as “an independent writer with an interest in philosophy living in Berkeley, California.”  Paolini wants to nail down “scientism” as a group of consistent, classifiable errors of philosophy rather than as a set of unfounded propositions about science.  So, for example, he introduces five claims often identified as “scientistic”:

- Observation is the only source of genuine knowledge.
– Eventually, all fields of knowledge will be sciences.
– Human progress and scientific progress are identical.
– One day all humankind will hold the scientific worldview and no other.
– The question of how we should live can and should be answered by science.

but then dismisses them because these are simply individual propositions that can be falsified, not things that have an identified philosophical commonality.  As he says,

If we were to identify scientism with belief in such propositions, then the charge of scientism would merely be the charge of having certain beliefs that are false, and what it is that is supposed to be wrong with having such beliefs, beyond falsity, is left unspecified. To put this another way, identifying scientism with certain beliefs renders the charge of scientism merely of the form: such-and-such is believed and such-and-such is false — which gives no indication of the significance of using the word ‘scientism’ to begin with.

I’m not sure why Paolini dismisses some of these as simple falsifiable claims: the first, for example, is really a worldview, and several of the claims taken together could also constitute a worldview.  And when philosophers and theologians go after “scientism”, they are (though the term is ill-defined) going after a fallacious worldview based on science, such as the first one above.

But Paolini doesn’t like that.  As he says:

The thinker may be wrong in her belief, but even so her belief does not entail anything that could be considered scientism in any sense. This suggests that scientism does not reside in the content of relevant beliefs but elsewhere.

This, of course, suggests that Paolini wants to find some general problem that can be identified as scientism, a problem that characterizes all “scientistic” worldviews.

His solution is this, which at first sounds not too shabby:

We may sharpen this account with the notion of a scientistic belief; here I use the word ‘scientistic’ as simply an adjectival form of the noun ‘scientism.’  We shall say that a belief is scientistic just in case it is falsely justified by a pro-science belief; that is, if a belief appeals to a pro-science belief that does not in fact warrant it, then that belief is scientistic.

He then gives three examples of “scientistic inferences”:

Below, while the premises are pro-science beliefs that may or may not be scientistic, the conclusions are scientistic beliefs that may or may not be overtly pro-science.

[Premise] Science is the greatest authority on human knowledge.
[Conclusion] If science says that consciousness does not exist, non-scientists should simply accept it.

[P] Science has been far more successful than the humanities in improving human life.
[C] Resources should be directed away from the humanities toward science.

[P] Science provides the truth about reality while religions do not.
[C] The scientific worldview should be preferred to any religious worldview.

Paolini, then, sees “scientism” as something like “a form of fallacious inference that involves exaggerated respect for science” (this is my take).

I suppose there’s some merit to this, but I see it as superfluous.  If “scientism” is just “flawed reasoning,” his words, then why don’t we call it “flawed reasoning?”  After all, “scientism” could then devolve to just a single instance of flawed reasoning, and is not any kind of worldview, which is how everyone who uses it (perjoratively) means it.  And if “scientism” means “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for science,” then we must also have a new term, “religionism”, meaning “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for religion.”  And we could also have “philosophism,” fallacies based on too much respect for philosophy.  Religionism, of course, is pervasive, but we don’t see Pigliucci, or anyone else, accusing the faithful or repeatedly committing this logical error.

Here’s a genuine instance of “religionism”:

[P] Religious people often reject evolution because it contravenes their faith.
[C] If we tell religious people that evolution does not contravene their faith, and respect their faith at the same time, they’ll eventually accept evolution.

Here’s an instance of “philosophism”:

[P] Jerry Coyne says that plumbing is a kind of science, if one broadly construes “science” as “a combination of reason and empirical investigation.”
[C] Since Jerry Coyne doesn’t have a philosophy degree, his claim is ridiculous.

At any rate, by all means adopt Paolini’s term, which seems at least as sensible as any other defintion, but by all means let us also have terms for all forms of flawed reasoning that rest on single worldviews.

As for the three examples given above, I’m not convinced that all of them are examples of flawed reasoning:

[Premise] Science is the greatest authority on human knowledge.
[Conclusion] If science says that consciousness does not exist, non-scientists should simply accept it.

This depends on what you mean by both “knowledge” and “science”. For example, I’m not sure that science, narrowly construed as what scientists do, is the greatest authority on historical knowledge, or knowledge about archaeology. In that case, the premise is wrong, not the reasoning, for I’d turn to a historian rather than a biologist to find out about word “science” in the premise to mean “a combination of reason and empirical investigation,”, then yes, I’d agree that science is the greatest authority on human knowledge.

The conclusion, while it doesn’t follow from the precise premise, is also specious. I don’t know of anyone who says that consciousness doesn’t “exist”, but I know people who say that consciousness is an illusion, and of course illusions are things that can be said to exist as beliefs. So that’s a bad example. But there’s also an error in the premise, which is that science is infallible. Of course nobody should accept anything just because science says so.  Scientists have, en masse, been wrong, as in the case of continental drift.  Scientific conclusions are provisional.  The layperson should probably accept the scientific consensus at any given moment, simply because he doesn’t have either the time or expertise to investigate for himself.  But that doesn’t mean that one should regard scientist, or science, as infallible.

P] Science has been far more successful than the humanities in improving human life.
[C] Resources should be directed away from the humanities toward science.

One can’t even begin to evaluate the conclusion here because the premise is unclear.  What do we mean by “improve”?  Science can improve health, communication, and so on, and humanities can improve our thinking, our empathy, and our feeling of mutuality with fellow creatures.  If I had to do away with one of these, it would be humanities, for the simple reason that without science most of us would be dead by 40 and we’d die young from all sorts of preventable illnesses, which would impede us from half a lifetime.  Fortunately, we don’t have to make that choice, for I love the arts and literature.

If you’re going to assert the premise, then you have to identify what you mean by “improving human life”. If you can’t come up with a consistent definition and a metric to judge how much science vs. humanities contribute to human improvement, then the premise is simply unclear.  If you can come up with a metric—something like Harris’s “well being,” perhaps—then yes, perhaps you can see how much the two fields contribute to human improvement and direct resources accordingly.  After all, the humanities are in universities because we all think, for various reasons, that they do improve our lives.

I don’t see this second example as a case of flawed reasoning based on hyper-respect for science.

Let me add that that direction of resources has already taken place: sciences at our university, for example, get far more resources than do humanities. But that’s for the wrong reasons: it’s because scientists can get big grants, and the overhead from those grants supports the university.

[P] Science provides the truth about reality while religions do not.
[C] The scientific worldview should be preferred to any religious worldview.

This is not scientism because the logic is sound, so long as you add to the premise “the truth is to be preferred to falsehood.”

Here’s a real example of what Paolini means by “scientism”:

[P] Science has shown that we can use nuclear fission and fusion to create huge explosions.
[C] We should use those findings to build bombs of enormous destructive capacity.

That’s fallacious because it derives an “ought” from an “is.”  But really, how many people accused of scientism engage in this kind of reasoning?  Some have accused Sam Harris of committing the ought/is fallacy in his book The Moral Landscape, but in other respects he’s not scientistic, as when he tells us that science can help determine what contributes to well being.  Predictably, in a comment on the post, Pigliucci accuses several of the New Atheists, including Dawkins, Harris, and I, of scientism, but I reject the charge, with the provisional exception of Sam’s derivation of “ought” from “is”.

As for me, I maintain that if you define science broadly as I have above, then yes, plumbing is a form of science, for it uses empirical investigation and reason to do things like locate and fix leaks. At the end of a wonderful essay about creationism and his participation in the trial of McLean v. Arkansas, Steve Gould made that very point:

As I prepared to leave Little Rock last December, I went to my hotel room to gather my belongings and found a man sitting backward on my commode, pulling it apart with a plumber’s wrench. He explained to me that a leak in the room below had caused part of the ceiling to collapse and he was seeking the source of the water. My commode, located just above, was the obvious candidate, but his hypothesis had failed, for my equipment was working perfectly. The plumber then proceeded to give me a fascinating disquisition on how a professional traces the pathways of water through hotel pipes and walls. The account was perfectly logical and mechanistic: it can come only from here, here, or there, flow this way or that way, and end up there, there, or here. I then asked him what he thought of the trial across the street, and he confessed his staunch creationism, including his firm belief in the miracle of Noah’s flood.

As a professional, this man never doubted that water has a physical source and a mechanically constrained path of motion — and that he could use the principles of his trade to identify causes. It would be a poor (and unemployed) plumber indeed who suspected that the laws of engineering had been suspended whenever a puddle and cracked plaster bewildered him. Why should we approach the physical history of our earth any differently?

49 Comments

  1. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Gould’s plumber would be guilty of religionism. L

  2. Ralph Gentile
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    It sounds like navel-gazing to me.

  3. Posted December 26, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I wondered about that “Rationally Speaking” post when I read it yesterday.

    I am inclined to agree with the comment that scientism doesn’t exist.

    Massimo:

    Take Jerry’s famous statement that plumbing *is* science, for instance.

    I take that to be a Coyneism, rather than an example of scientism. It seems to me that scientism, if there is such a thing, ought to refer to broad attitudes or world views, not to individual statements. And if Jerry has a scientistic outlook, then I cannot see how to explain his posts about cats.

    Massimo:

    Or the Churchlands’ eliminativism about mental states (pain *is* the firing of C-fibers).

    The Churchlands are staking out a contentious position which they are prepared to defend. Could the philosophy even exist as a discipline if such staking out of positions were not allowed.

    Count me as puzzled by what Massimo posted in that thread.

    • bloodyhell
      Posted December 26, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      My head is going to explode if I hear one more time a philosopher misuse the term c-fiber. No scientist (nor the Churchlands) says that pain *is* the firing of the c-fibers. It’s like saying vision *is* the firing of the optic nerve. Of course it is not. Why can’t philosophers get some basic neuroanatomy right.

      • Posted December 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        The “c-fibre” thing is a legacy of ancient knowledge, I think – it was first used back before people knew less. Doesn’t excuse the uncritical use (but then again, we couldn’t succinctly describe the pain pathways as currently understood anyway).

      • Posted December 26, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

        It has been my impression that when philosophers talk of c-fibers, they are talking hypothetically. They are making theoretical a point about physicalist assumptions, but are not saying anything that they believe to be anatomically correct.

        • bloodyhell
          Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

          Nice try. When philosophers get basic facts wrong, of course! they are merely talking hypothetically. Of course when they say c-fiber they are really talking about the thalamus, the cingulate and other brain structures. Why bother with scholarship and accuracy when you can make things up about zombies. It is really hard to take philosophers seriously when they are so wrong about very basic things.

          The real problem with this “I’m a philosopher so I don’t need to know any anatomy when I talk about the brain” gung-ho attitude is that it mischaracterizes the positions of scientists and physicalist philosophers. Pain obviously is not the firing of some fibers (fibers can’t fire, by the way). It is the interaction of many many brain structures. The logical consequences of “c-fibers firing” and “interaction of multiple brain structure” are very different.

          • jrshipley
            Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

            This is a notably uncharitable characterization of philosophers.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

              And I like it!

  4. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Philosohy: The never-ending battle for the privilege of defining the terms of discourse. It’s a bit arbitrary and fruitless, ain’t it?

  5. Posted December 26, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    [D] We should use those findings to generate electricity.

    Varieties of Oughtism Experience.

  6. bloodyhell
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    The example of consciousness is bizarre. I am in neuroscience/cognitive science, but I have never heard of any scientist who argues that consciousness does not exist. Philosophers, however, do make such claim. John Searle, for example, wrote a book criticizing other philosophers for denying the existence of consciousness (“The Rediscovery of the Mind”).

    Philosophism is a lot more commonplace than scientism. Scientists of every discipline have encountered something like this:

    [P] Philosophers are very very good at concepts. Much better than everyone else.

    [C] If some philosophers argue that consciousness is not physical, they must make some sense!

    Many scientists are bullied into this line of reasoning and took time to read philosophy. And were disappointed.

    The definition of science is another example. Massimo Pigliucci always defines science so narrowly that it does not resemble reality. But he is quite certain that he is right. This is because… what else, he is a philosophers and philosophers are supposed to be good at defining things.

    • Posted December 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Even that’s debatable: Dennett and the Churchlands don’t really *deny that consciousness exists*, but rather deny that most of what we think we know is in fact anything like correct.

  7. Posted December 26, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but I only had time to scan your post, Jerry. But, in that quick scan, I didn’t see anything indicating that those making accusations of scientism had any evidence backing their claims. And I’m at an utter loss to think of a good reason why practitioners of the religion known as “philosophy” should get any more of a pass on their perfect lack of evidence than should the practitioners of any other religion.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted December 26, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      If I may add — I’m disinclined to accept the label of “scientism,” since I really have no clue what it’s supposed to mean.

      I will, however, cheerfully and heartily accept the label of “empiricism.” Yet, for some reason, none of the religious seem inclined to throw that one around as an insult. I wonder why…?

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted December 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        You shouldn’t. Science is no more empiricism than it is rationalism. But, as Bunge says about scientism, (something like) “well, if you think that respect for evidence, hard thinking constrained by said evidence, etc. then I’ve been called worse.”

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          Explain please. Scientists don’t think that science is “appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification” but that facts comes from observation. Reason is needed but not sufficient.

          • What?
            Posted July 17, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            That’s great, so they appeal to an observational ideaology?

            “Facts are constituted by older ideologies, and a clash between facts and theories may be proof of progress.”

            “Taking experimental results and observations for granted and putting the burden of proof on the theory means taking the observational ideology for granted without having ever examined it.”

            “Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest an not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens.”

  8. Kevin
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    While I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water — I think the discussion is productive in a certain sense, here are what I see as fundamental flaws of his reasoning:

    1. He’s assuming that “science” is monolithic and unchanging.

    The fact that science is plastic and contentious does not seem to occur to philosophers.

    2. He’s anthropomorphizing “science” into some sort of single-source human avatar as the source of all knowledge. No wonder they accuse us of being ‘religious’. They’re trying to accuse us of omniscience.

    These folks really don’t know how science works, do they?

    With regard to his consciousness example, this is once again conflating the conceptual with the concrete. It’s exactly the same as the “science can’t tell us what love is” complaint. Philosophers seem to have difficulty with making such distinctions. I assume it’s based on Platonic precepts, but can’t say for certain.

  9. Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Here’s our take on this nonsense:

    “Paolini, then, sees “scientism” as something like “a form of fallacious inference that involves exaggerated respect for science”

    No “inference” under ANY activity that is scientific is judged without extensive, inter-subjective data that can always be challenged and disproven with other data.

    So, in fact, there are no “inferences” in scientific activities.

    Inferences are for those who are “paid by the word” and whose claims are based on rhetoric and ideology — theologians and philosophers, etc.

    For example, the simple question on something like consciousness is — show me the data.

    • abb3w
      Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Don’t be absurd. Any scientific research can be disproven with other data. All you have to do is re-run all the original experiments twice more apiece and get new data that contradict the original results.

      Philosophically, this is trivial… although in practice, less so. =)

  10. abb3w
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I still think that the is-ought divide is they key. In particular, classifying plumbing as science is careless, in that the practice usually involve preferences; EG: that the black water line NOT leak. As such, plumbing includes an ought-proposition, and is thus not just a Science, but a branch of Engineering — which is what you get when you add an is-ought bridge to a science. And, on the other hand, in so far as there is a science of plumbing underlying the engineering, I’d also suggest that History and Archaeology are sciences… albeit perhaps with less coherent and well-proven theoretical frameworks, due to dealing with fundamentally harder problems.

    On the other side of the coin, I’d note that all three of Paolini’s “scientistic inference” examples involve reasoning from an is to an ought, indicated by the “should” in the conclusion.

    I’d also suggest Paolini’s ideas might be useful for trying to see how close they come to position that would be accepted by those he criticizes. In particular, I’d suggest the modification of Observation is the necessary foundation of genuine knowledge of connections between abstraction and experiential reality. (Having abstraction in the first place is also in some sense a foundation, as is having and experiential reality; so there’s room for improvement in the phrasing.)

    I would similarly disagree with Eventually, all fields of knowledge will be sciences because I consider mathematics to be a root of all the sciences rather than a branch. (Science requires experiential evidence as an input; mathematics is only concerned with abstract relations of abstract entities, and any failure to map to experience doesn’t mean the math is wrong, only that the attempt to use that map is wrong.) However, I would say All fields of knowledge can be treated as branches of mathematics holds, with Science being those branches concerned with correspondence to experience (and with the assumption that experience has a pattern — leaving out the exact but broad mathematical meaning of pattern for brevity). The catch being that such direct treatment is not always the most efficient means, even though it is always effectively an isomorphic means.

    Last, I would subtly disagree with The question of how we should live can and should be answered by science. Rather, I would say that Given an is-ought bridge to define the “should” ordering relation on choices, the consequent question of how we should live can be answered by science. I would add that the resulting combination of science and ought bridge(s) is what I mean by Engineering. I omit the “and should” because it seems imprecise; rather, I would prefer an explicit metric space phrasing on the lines of “and gives a pseudo-algorithm of maximal computational efficiency for the general problem via”. The catch being, I don’t have an explicit pseudo-algorithm (that includes a few non-algorithmic steps, as can be given for science), and thus no mathematical proof of that maximum. Yet.

    • Posted December 26, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Agreed – even someone who thinks (in the limit) that science covers a huge area of concern still has to distinguish between technology and science. This because any scientific finding has at least two possible morals: to do X, do Y will always be as supported as to prevent X, prevent Y for a law statement of the form Y -> X.

  11. Jim Jones
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    “If we were to identify truth with belief in such propositions, then the charge of truth would merely be the charge of having certain beliefs that are false, and what it is that is supposed to be wrong with having such beliefs, beyond falsity, is left unspecified. To put this another way, identifying truth with certain beliefs renders the charge of truth merely of the form: such-and-such is believed and such-and-such is false — which gives no indication of the significance of using the word ‘truth’ to begin with.”

    (Substituting ‘truth’ for ‘scientism’)!?!?!?!

  12. Stonyground
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    It appears to me that Paolini is simply knocking over a whole load of straw men. He doesn’t cite anyone who actually holds the erronious views that he is destroying. I think that, as a general rule, the scientific method is the only reliable source of knowledge. I also accept that it is not quite as simple as that, there are a few grey areas. However, I don’t agree with any of the statements that he would accuse me of believing. The odd one I would half agree with but with important caveats. Until he finds us a genuine scientismist to argue with I think that we should ignore him.

  13. Posted December 26, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    We shall say that a belief is scientistic just in case it is falsely justified by a pro-science belief; that is, if a belief appeals to a pro-science belief that does not in fact warrant it, then that belief is scientistic.

    Umm… if some belief can be shown to be falsely justified, then a Scientismist would accept that, as demonstrated truth (or non-falsity) is one of the key dogmas of the Scientismist faith.

    *sheesh*, even I have enough Sophisticated Scientism Theology to know (or feel) that.

    Rixaeton,
    Lay Preacher of the Church of Gnu Scientism.

    • Posted December 26, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Splitter!

      /@

    • Steersman
      Posted December 26, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      We shall say that a belief is scientistic just in case it is falsely justified by a pro-science belief; that is, if a belief appeals to a pro-science belief that does not in fact warrant it, then that belief is scientistic.

      Out of curiosity, how does one prove that a “pro-science belief” is not warranted [not justified, no reasons for] except by showing that one can reach its contradiction by some other method of knowing and that its demonstration required something other than empiricism – i.e. something not based on “observation or experiment”?

  14. Chet
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Sam Harris commits the “ought from is” fallacy, for the simple reason that the mistake is seeing something that is and concluding that the thing ought to be.

    But it’s not fallacious at all to see something that is and conclude that something else ought to be; the existence of a ravine between two neighboring cities very much implies that a bridge ought to be there.

    • jrshipley
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      I presume the cities are not warring.

  15. Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    I had to stop right when I read his assertion that “Observation is the only source of genuine knowledge”.

    The term “genuine” is nebulous. I would say that observation is the only source of demonstrably reliable, valid knowledge. Other purported sources of knowledge, like the religious claims of revelation or subjective claims of divine experiences, can never be dis/confirmed. That means there’s no reliable way to determine who’s telling the truth and who’s just making shit up.

  16. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Yet *Another* big, obviously real, iron nail in the coffin that contains the bloated and stinking ancient corpse of “Professional Philosophy”.

  17. lofgren
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    Scientism sounds like such a horrible thing. I truly don’t want to be a scientismist. But I don’t really understand what scientism is, so I don’t really understand what the alternative is.

    It seems improbable that scientism could constitute an entirely new class of philosophical errors, so you would think philosophers could point to some other -ism and say “It’s like that, but with science.”

    Likewise, you would think that there is some word that describes the lack of such errors, which they could point to and then say “Instead, you should think like this.”

    Of course, then they would have to demonstrate somehow that This is a superior way of thinking to scientism, in which case they would be engaging in a form of (broadly defined) science. But we’ll assume for the moment that this can be done without creating a paradox.

    The point is, it seems to me that the more the scientism-positers struggle to explain what scientism is, the more I see that as circumstantial evidence that what they are talking about does not exist. It’s a word looking for a definition. That is not a reliable way of describing reality. (Oh no, am I being scientismatic again?)

    • Steersman
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

      The point is, it seems to me that the more the scientism-positers struggle to explain what scientism is, the more I see that as circumstantial evidence that what they are talking about does not exist.

      Definitely a somewhat problematic and “tricky” definition. But one that seems to provide a useful starting point, as far as I’m concerned, and apparently in the view of Wikipedia, is this portion of their definition:

      Scientism may refer to a belief in the universal applicability of the systematic methods and approach of science

      And, as I’ve argued elsewhere here, it seems that things like Gödel’s Proof and a book by Steven Weinberg – Dreams of a Final Theory – more or less prove, apparently, by scientific or mathematical means – that in fact there are some fundamental limitations to the algorithmic methods by which science and mathematics have traditionally proceeded.

      And if that is really true, if we can have “faith” in the processes by which those conclusions are reached, then to assert in the face of that, that the “systematic methods of science have universal applicability”, seems, in the fact itself, to qualify as scientism – and seems to be an assertion that is a “pro-science belief that is in fact not warranted”.

      • lofgren
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:05 am | Permalink

        You’re kidding, right?

        • Steersman
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:37 am | Permalink

          Why would you think that? Did you take a look at the Wikipedia article on scientism? Or those on Godel’s Proof? Or Weinberg’s book? Credible scientists and mathematicians making credible arguments about the limits of science, IMO.

          • Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

            But is it the case that science, at least, can proceed by algorithmic methods alone? It might have done so, traditionally, but is science bound to do so?

            /@

            • Steersman
              Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

              An excellent question methinks; even the $64,000 one.

              And I would argue or at least suggest, as does Pigliucci here, that science already proceeds or is crucially assisted by non-algorithmic methods, specifically in the process by which various hypotheses are generated which then provide the jumping off point for various subsequent deductions and experimental tests. As Pigliucci summarizes it:

              Here, I am with Henri Poincaré (quoted by the Kuntz’s) when he wrote back in 1908 that “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.” Which is true also for formal logic and math. Substitute “empirical evidence’ for “logic” in the quote, and you get science.

              Although I would argue that he is either too vague there or mistaken in that the “hypothetico-deductive method” of science encompasses and is crucially dependent on both the somewhat intuitive, non-algorithmic or inductive process of generating hypotheses and on the use of “empirical evidence” and logic and deduction: the two legs of an articulated process, one might say. As P.B. Medawar put it:

              In real life the imaginative and critical acts that unite to form the hypothetico-deductive method alternate so rapidly, at least in the earlier stages of constructing a theory, that they are not spelled out in thought. The ‘process of invention, trial, and acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis goes on so rapidly’, said Whewell, ‘that we cannot trace it in its successive steps.’

              As you probably know, entirely characteristic of various feedback control systems.

              But apropos of which I would also argue, relative to various discussions on whether plumbing was science, that those two “legs” are the essence of the “common sense” that we all use on a daily basis; that they are in fact two separate ways of knowing; and that, in the broadest sense or definition of the term, it is quite reasonable to argue that there is “no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test [and generate] hypotheses based on empirical evidence”. Although I would also agree with Pigliucci in that a narrower sense or definition of the term – that which is practiced by those individuals who have taken formal courses of a certain duration and content – is also applicable depending on the context; very similar, one might argue, to the question of to what extent is the term “religion” applicable to the “theory and practice” of “atheism”.

              But Pigliucci also emphasizes a crucial point about intuition which is that the reliability and value of the intuitions are a function, one might argue, of the number of facts that constrain and direct them:

              As for the intuitions of experts, there is plenty of cognitive science literature …. showing that intuitions in one’s domain of expertise become increasingly reliable the longer one has been practicing in that domain.

              Curious that many of the descriptions of the intuitions experienced by various scientists – as detailed, for example, in Paul Davies’ The Mind of God – show a great many similarities with those of various religious “revelations”. The difference, of course, being the dearth of facts in the latter case and that it tends to entirely reject any value or relevance associated with the other “leg” – the epitome of being crippled, and that self-inflicted, although religious indoctrination might be construed as an exception to that rule.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that “Gödel’s Proof(s)” (I assume you mean his incompleteness theorems and not his “onthological proof”) are math and so can’t tell anything about observational facts.

        Indeed, all they say is that in order to be consistent when using more complex models (here: obeying addition), you can’t be complete. So you can’t use axiomatics as such, but need to extend your axiom sets with new observation.

        It doesn’t say anything on power of algorithms, to my knowledge. That is the area of computer science, not math. (CS is based on the observation of resources, similar to how statistics is based on the observation of events.)

        • Posted January 25, 2012 at 2:03 am | Permalink

          The problem is that “Gödel’s Proof(s)” (I assume you mean his incompleteness theorems and not his “ontological proof”) are math and so can’t tell anything about observational facts.

          Yes, the former. But while I certainly don’t have more than a tenuous handle on Gödel’s Proof and its ramifications for physics my understanding of the relationship between the math and the “observational facts” is that it is the math that provides the underlying laws without which the facts are, in Lord Kelvin’s somewhat disparaging view of sciences other than physics, little more than collected stamps. And if the math has some intrinsic limitations then presumably, although this may be a stretch or the questionable hypothesis, there will be facts for which there is no math to tie them together. As Freeman Dyson put it on the Theory of Everything idea:

          Gödel’s theorem implies that pure mathematics is inexhaustible. No matter how many problems we solve, there will always be other problems that cannot be solved within the existing rules. [...] Because of Gödel’s theorem, physics is inexhaustible too. The laws of physics are a finite set of rules, and include the rules for doing mathematics, so that Gödel’s theorem applies to them.

          And that aspect of “rules for doing mathematics” and “rules of mathematics” is generally what seems to be the basis for the “algorithmic” characterization. Although those generally seem to be related to the deductive leg of the “hypothetico-deductive method” and process of science and it seems to leave open the question as to where the hypotheses, the intuitions that start the process, come from. And some have argued that they follow from a somewhat non-algorithmic process that shows some similarities with religious revelations – as indicated in my previous post – even if the latter have quite a bit less credibility.

  18. Lambert
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but I just cannot bring myself to read about this kind of drivel. When the title of a piece is compelled to include two neologisms, and painfully awkward ones at that (‘Scientism’ and ‘scientistic’), can there be a point in reading the whole thing?

  19. Posted December 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    From time to time indeterminists have used “scientism” as a borderline ad hominem in the philosophical struggle between determinism and indeterminism. Determinists assume that all effects have material causes; indeterminists assume that some effects may not have material causes.

    The anti-science argument encapsulated by the derisive appellation had some validity in the days of classical mechanics and classical determinism. Their underlying assumption of finite universal causality engendered hubris that failed whenever the promised complete answers were not furnished. Laplace’s Demon was not able to predict a single effect with the absolute precision demanded.

    I predict that the 21st Century form of determinism will be harder to slander in this way. This is because it is based on infinite universal causality (All effects have an infinite number of material causes), which is consupponible with the assumption of infinity (The universe is infinite, both in the microcosmic and macrocosmic directions). The hubris is removed with the equally consupponible assumption of uncertainty (It is impossible to know everything about anything, but it is possible to know more about anything). Univironmental determinism (What happens to a portion of the universe is determined by the infinite matter within and without) is at once the universal mechanism of evolution as well as the new scientific worldview.

  20. Andrew Viceroy
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Generally speaking, scientists and philosophers have two heuristics that they apply most of the time. Scientists reduce and philosophers inflate (though of course neither do so exclusively). Perjoritive characterizations of scientists as ‘reductive’ (all Paolini’s 5 claims fit the bill) can often be turned onto philosophers/metaphysicians as ‘inflative’. If we consider that these are modes that each in their field must apply to get to novel information via their unique epistemological method, both sides should have a little more respect and humilty- enough to not be rude about it anyway. It’s two approaches going head to head when one mind is trying to expand enough to think outside of the box, while another is trying to rule things out.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      +1.

  21. Andrew Viceroy
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Paolini’s three examples of “scientistic inferences”:

    1. Strawman (science would never say we are ‘done’ investigating)
    2. False dilemma (you can do both)
    3. High redefinition of “truth”

  22. Posted January 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    One basic premise that runs across much of philosophy is that for something to be false in the strict sense it must be possible to state coherently what it would be for it to be true; otherwise it doesn’t have a truth value at all. To state that ‘consciousness is an illusion’, I fear, cannot be extrapolated from without running right into statements that do not meet that criterion.

    Consciousness is an abstract description of all the states of awareness we are subject to having. If we are to declare them across the board to be ‘illusions’, we are declaring something to be *necessarily* an illusion rather than the statement that they are non-illusory just happening to be false. It is to say that there is no state we could identify as true consciousness, which makes the idea of consciousness incoherent. But one can’t verifiably have an illusion of something that isn’t even coherent. It could never be established what it would mean for it to be true so that it can be shown to be believed, but false. Hence, while the concept can be accused of being incoherent, one can’t admit that the referent is coherent and state that it is always and everywhere not however there, as a necessary matter.

    Of course, anything in the content of consciousness could be an illusion; but if consciousness itself were an illusion, there would be no criterion for saying that either.

    I would be inclined to refer to this particular claim as scientism; by ignoring the basic philosophical fact that something must be susceptible to being a non-illusion to be called an illusion, it presents supposed findings that are meant to affect how we think about ourselves that are in the realm of (bad) poetry or religion, backing them up with the stamp of science.

    My definition is simply: giving a warrant of apparent association with science to back a conclusion that is theological or philosophical in nature, without the need to defend it, or in some cases for it to even make sense. Such statements inevitably arise when the old claim that science replaces religion is revived. Science is a practice based on logic, and cannot replace a mythology or attempt to state the meaning or significance of life. One can be anti-religious in a broad sense, but one cannot claim that one is providing a functional replacement for religion.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      One basic premise that runs across much of philosophy is that for something to be false in the strict sense it must be possible to state coherently what it would be for it to be true; otherwise it doesn’t have a truth value at all.

      It doesn’t happen that way in science.

      Facts can eventually be attributed truth values, robustly so after many tests, making connections with many other facts through theories, error exclusions et cetera. But facts are not based in our ability to “state coherently what it would be for it to be true” but in our ability to state coherently what it would be for it to be falsifiable.

      The truth value is rendered robustness by eliminating competing predictions and theories.

      Yes, we can empirically say that consciousness is an illusion, because we can theoretically (one day) test the illusory part by observation of its emergence out of the brain/body substrate. If the interpretation of consciousness is a misinterpretation of what our senses tells us, such as a coherent, localized ‘self’, it is an illusion.

      Such statements inevitably arise when the old claim that science replaces religion is revived. Science is a practice based on logic, and cannot replace a mythology or attempt to state the meaning or significance of life. One can be anti-religious in a broad sense, but one cannot claim that one is providing a functional replacement for religion.

      The claim is that it can replace religion as a world view. (See the post for some misunderstandings on world views.)

      I don’t think atheists perceive a need to provide a wholesale replacement for religion. Why replace unneeded ritual with something else unneeded, say?

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    That was educational, and enjoyable! I am glad I found time to catch up on some of WEIT.

    As for me, I maintain that if you define science broadly as I have above, then yes, plumbing is a form of science, for it uses empirical investigation and reason to do things like locate and fix leaks.

    That may be more useful than my own delineation, between falsification of science and bayesian modification of learning. The former can be observed to generate universal facts (but didn’t need to), the latter relative facts (as it needs to) based on the current data set.

    Scientism in the narrow sense based on this observation is the falsifiable fact that science and learning observably works to generate facts, and nothing else does. Experience and behavior are aspects of biochemical machines or their interactions, so is not relevant here.

    Scientism in the broad sense seems to be the religious sentiment that “science tells me my beliefs are non-factual, so I don’t want to accept it and its excellence”.


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