Philip Kitcher, one of my favorite philosophers, has waded into the “science wars,” though not in as invidious a way as has Elliott Sober. Over at The New Republic, Kitcher has a new essay on the hubris of science: “The trouble with scientism: why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge.“ It’s a good essay, touting the progress that has been made in “nonscientific” fields, but do note the fields in the title: history and the humanities. In fact, I construe “science” broadly: as the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge. Those methods can indeed apply to history and some of the humanities. But Kitcher’s own conception of science seems to be “the brand of inquiry practiced by natural scientists”: physicists, biologists, chemists, and so on. And so he construes “scientism” as scientists’ attacks on fields like anthropology and history. I think Kitcher’s criticism is misguided because his conception of what is “scientific” is too narrow.
Kitcher’s claim is that we scientists, or those who practice “scientism,” have been overly awed by five observations about natural science:
The problem with scientism—which is of course not the same thing as science—is owed to a number of sources, and they deserve critical scrutiny. The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.
He then proceeds to show not only that other disciplines—notably history and the social sciences—have also progressed in a science-like fashion, but that science itself has also been dominated by false theories. In other words, while touting “other ways of knowing,” Kitcher also engages in some mild criticism of science itself for overreaching. You will be familiar with these tactics: they’re the stock in trade of accommodationist theologians. Kitcher concludes:
So the five points of scientism rest on stereotypes, and these are reinforced by the perception of threats. As the budgets for humanities departments shrink, humanists see natural scientists blundering where the truly wise fear to tread. Conversely, scientists whose projects fail to win public approval seem to envision what John Dupré has called the “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Humanist,” a fantasy akin to supposing that post-modernist manifestos are routinely distributed with government briefing books. We need to move beyond the stereotypes and discard the absurd visions that often maintain them.
Now Kitcher is far more cogent than those theologians. He’s right that scientists have sometimes been overly enthusiastic about theories that are either more limited than originally conceived (he uses evolutionary psychology) or downright wrong (my own example is the early rejection of continental drift). And he’s right that areas outside “traditional” science have made progress: scholars have, for example, helped reconstruct where the Bible came from, and uncovered many previously hidden facts about history. Further, his cautions about arriving at a Wilsonian “theory of everything” are useful. Though ultimately all phenomena, including human social interactions, come down to the motions of molecules, we’ll never be able to understand our society using the tools of physics alone. Things as complicated as human society (nay, any society) are higher-order, emergent properties that often demand their own methods. (That does not, however, mean that those higher-order properties are not absolutely consistent with the laws of physics. The claim of inconsistency is the purview of religion and fuzzy thinking. And even many aspects of human society can be explained by genes, which are certainly “low level” entities.)
But the main problem with Kitcher’s piece, I think, is that he contrasts science with fields that use the same methods of science: reason, observation, and doubt. If you look at his examples of where scholars have produced increased understanding and progress, it is in disciplines like history, economics, ethnography, and archaeology—fields that rely on the same “ways of knowing” as does science. Here are a few of Kitcher’s statements:
The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains—say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists—as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same. The historical linguists who recognize connections among languages or within a language at different times, and the religious scholars who point out the affiliations among different texts, use methods equivalent to those that have been deployed ever since Darwin in the study of the history of life. Indeed, Darwin’s paleontology borrowed the method from early nineteenth-century studies of the history of languages.
Who among scientists denigrates these achievements? Not I! But all of these achievements rest on observation, questioning, reason, and testing—the methods of science. There is in fact no strict demarcation between “science” and “non-science” when it comes to the methods for ascertaining what is real. One commenter on this site even noted that the classic chestnut of “another way of knowing”—does my partner love me?—is also amenable to empirical scrutiny. At any rate, I think Philip is barking up the wrong tree here, for few scientists would criticize efforts to determine who painted a picture using methods of dating and examination of brushstrokes and style. All of us appreciate the efforts of linguists, who use the same methods that biologists once used to ascertain relatedness of species; and all of us appreciate the efforts of Biblical scholars to find out when the Bible was written and how the various parts derive from various sources. Few of us denigrate these “ways of knowing.”
Here’s more from Philip:
While it is true that rigorous history and ethnography often give up generality for accuracy and precision, their conclusions can nonetheless have considerable importance. . . History and ethnography are used instead to show the readers what it is like to live in a particular way, to provide those of us who belong to very different societies with a vantage point from which to think about ourselves and our own arrangements.
Agreed! But even those endeavors derive from observation, and are subject to testing and verification. Remember the big kerfuffle when Margaret Mead’s observations on Samoan culture were questioned? She was ultimately vindicated, as I recall, but it was through the efforts of scholars who examined her contentions, her notes, and tested the assertions of her critics.
Kitcher goes on.
THE DOMAIN OF the social sciences is the territory on which humanists and natural scientists frequently join battle . . .
To declare that there is a “natural unemployment rate” of 6 percent has a wide-ranging social and political impact, and it is entirely reasonable for critics to examine the evidence alleged to support such a declaration. Likewise, the outcry against early ventures in sociobiology was fueled by the perception that, while the claims advanced were sweeping (and sometimes threatening to the aspirations of large groups of people), the support for them was markedly less strong than that routinely demanded for theorizing about, say, insect sociality.
Economics, fuzzy as it is, can still make empirically testable claims, as can sociobiology. These fields are both “science” if that word is construed broadly.
In the end, then, many of Kitcher’s arguments against “scientism” seem misguided—unless you conceive “science” narrowly as “what self-described scientists do.” But science is more than a profession; it’s a method—a method of inquiry that arose from the Enlightenment. In that sense, plumbers and car mechanics practice science when they diagnose problems.
The real question is not whether science is being arrogant when criticizing other disciplines, but whether those other disciplines give us real knowledge about the universe. That is, are other disciplines “ways of knowing”? Clearly, history, anthropology, archaeology, and many of the social sciences are. But religion is not, and I’m sure that Kitcher (who is, I think, an atheist) is not implying that it is. To say that archaeology is a way of knowing does not mean that revelation is a way of knowing. We need to keep that in mind whenever we talk about scientism.
At the end of his piece, Kitcher sticks his toe into murkier waters:
FOR A VARIETY of reasons, then, human inquiry needs a synthesis, in which history and anthropology and literature and art play their parts. But there is still a deeper reason for the enduring importance of the humanities. Many scientists and commentators on science have been led to view the sciences as a value-free zone, and it is easy to understand why. When the researcher enters the lab, many features of the social world seem to have been left behind. The day’s work goes on without the need for confronting large questions about how human lives can or should go. Research is insulated because the lab is a purpose-built place, within which the rules of operation are relatively clear and well-known. Yet on a broader view, which explores the purposes and their origins, it becomes clear that judgments of the significance of particular questions profoundly affect the work done and the environments in which it is done. Behind the complex and often strikingly successful practices of contemporary science stands a history of selecting specific aspects of the world for investigation.
I want to concentrate on his first sentence, which implies that literature and the arts are “ways of knowing,” but first let’s take up Philip’s contention that science isn’t “value free.” Of course it isn’t: we consider some questions more important than others. Explaining general patterns, like why male birds are more colorful than females, takes precedence over elucidating narrow issues like the diet of the magnolia warbler. And questions that bear on human health and welfare are considered more important than how to to eliminate cancer from the Tasmanian devil. Those priorities have to do with values and careerism. Also, non-scientific considerations can lead to the misuse of science, as when it’s used to make weapons. But that is not itself a criticism of the method of scientific inquiry, which has proven to be the only reliable method of gaining knowledge about our world and universe. Religion itself has never given us one such truth that has stood the test of time. If you know of one, by all means tell me.
Which brings us to literature and the arts. I have been pondering for a while whether music, art, and literature are “ways of knowing”—endeavors that tell us truths about the world or ourselves. When I was in Cambridge, I had a long talk with James Wood, the literature critic of The New Yorker and a delightful and erudite man, on precisely this point. I was pretty open-minded about this issue, but after talking with James, who seemed initially to favor the “ways-of-knowing” view of literature (I’m not sure what he thinks now), I concluded that the arts are not ways of knowing. As an example of how they could be, Wood cited The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy’s magnificent novella about the death of a rich man (read it if you haven’t). Wood told me that it was so realistic that it was once used for teaching medical students what it was like to die. And it is: something about it rings true, particularly its evocation of how one hates the prospect of losing life for good, and how one mourns a wasted life at its end.
But I realized that insofar that this novella tells us what it’s like to die, that is based on observation of dying people and expressing that observation in new and artistic ways. That is, the work wouldn’t strike us as true and meaningful if it didn’t express something that was gleaned by observation of human behavior. It is, in a way, a form of anthropology, and James pointed out to me the similarity between the stages of Ilyich’s dying and the five stages of death made so famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Her book, of course, derived from years of observing dying people, and gleaning generalities about their behavior up to the end.
And so it is with art and literature: they function not to find out new things about our world, but to convey to others in an expressive ways truths that are derived from observation. Of course the arts have other functions as well: they can enable us to see in new ways, for example. Who can look at a lily pond the same way if you’ve seen Monet’s renditions? And many of us are moved by Bach or Coltrane. But those aren’t ways of knowing—they’re ways of feeling.
It is indeed “scientism” to dismiss the real progress that has been made in history, archaeology, and other social sciences (though I’d be a bit hard pressed to identify real advances in economics). But few of us would deny that progress, so Kitcher’s form of “scientism” is in many ways a straw man.
I still maintain that real understanding of our universe can come only from using crude versions of methods that have been so exquisitely refined by science: reason combined with doubt, observation, and replication. As one of my commenters said last week, “there are not different ways of knowing. There is only knowing and not knowing.” I would add that there is also feeling, which is the purview of art. But none of this gives the slightest credibility to religion as a way of finding truth.