UPDATE: Eric has begun to respond to my comments in a preliminary post at Choice in Dying, and promises to provide a more thorough analysis later. He also called me “nephew”! I’m honored. But the example he uses is not a “fact” (the notion that WWII would have ended by Christmas of 1944 had Montgomery been allowed to be Supreme Commander in Europe rather than Eisenhower). I’m not sure what this has to do with knowing anything true about the world, since it’s just a speculative scenario about what might have happened had things been different. There’s no way of knowing for sure.
I have officially withdrawn the affectionate sobriquet of “Uncle” from Karl Giberson, since he’s been acting too religious lately, and bestowed it for the nonce on Eric MacDonald, who is also avuncular but never turns weird.
Eric has just finished a three-part series on “other ways of knowing,” taking issue with the assertion that science (which I construe broadly as “using a combination of empiricism, reason, replication, and doubt to find truths about the universe”) is the only way of apprehending truth. This is one of the few issues on which Eric and I part company, since he sees my scientism as badly misguided.
You can find the first two parts here and here, but I want to briefly take up the third, “Evidence, interpretation, and scientism,” posted at his site Choice in Dying three days ago. Here’s his claim:
What I have been trying to claim is that there is another dimension of human knowledge, and that knowledge itself cannot be wholly accounted for by referring to empirical evidence and the natural sciences.
While I agree that the natural sciences aren’t our sole source of knowledge (how could they be, given archaeology, historical studies, and the like?), I don’t agree that we can get knowledge without referring to empirical evidence. What would knowledge mean if there’s no referent to reality, unless you could count revelation and intuition as knowledge? Knowledge must be verified, and that means by another observer and that means science.
Eric sees the scientific method itself as something developed without empirical foundation: that is, there is a philosophical context in which science is done, and that means that philosophy must be taken into account when determining whether something counts as knowledge:
In the first place, as I have already pointed out, science itself is, to a larger degree than most people, even scientists, seem to recognise, a theory-laden activity. In other words, in order to derive scientific knowledge from the evidence, there must be a context in terms of which the evidence can be held to be evidence. When Hawking and Mlodinow proclaim the death of philosophy, and then go on to do philosophy a few pages later, it is as though the interpretive model in terms of which they understand evidence is purely transparent to the evidence, so that they do not need at any point to slow down and consider whether, in fact, model-dependent realism either makes sense of the evidence, or is philosophically robust enough to provide the evidence with a theoretical foundation. That they may have already done so unconsciously, or because it is included within the scientific consensus within which they work, means that the interpretive framework has simply gone unacknowledged. So, even at the level of science, there is an interpretive process at work without which science itself would be largely helpless.
Well, not all science has much to do with theory at all. If you’re simply enumerating the species present in a given area, trying to see which is common and which rare, there’s no theory involved in that. Some theory does come into play if you want to see how to save the rare species, but I would claim that much of that doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy, at least philosophy as most people conceive it. Suppose you decide to save the rare species by conserving its habitat. That, of course, involves the supposition that decreased habitat means fewer individuals for a species, but is that really philosophy?
I really don’t see—and maybe I’m just naive here—how making a model is necessarily a form of philosophy. When Darwin put his observations of biogeography together to posit that endemic species on islands were those that got there by rare dispersal events, and subsequently evolved into new species, is that philosophy? In what sense? And when he tested that theory by putting plant seeds in salt water to see if they could survive a long sea voyage, in what sense is that driven by philosophy? To construe “philosophy” in this way seems to me to make it meaningless, just one part of the way we find out stuff.
Now I’ll grant that we have to make an a priori assumption that the scientific method tells us truths about the world, and perhaps that’s philosophy. But of course even that assumption is justified empirically: using it allows us to make interventions and predictions that work. The assumption is justified by its results.
The problem with Eric’s three pieces, I think, is that they suffer from two problems:
- The absence obvious questions that, according to Eric, can’t be answered by science but only by other “ways of knowing.” This is a flaw of many similar accusations of scientism. They make nebulous accusations and never get specific.
- Eric’s failure to not only provide questions, but to give examples of the kind of “non-scientistic” answers he envisions.
In part 3 of his series, he gives three examples of work that he says provides answers but not through science. The first involves Biblical scholarship:
Take, for example, the whole business of biblical and textual studies. One of the most fascinating aspects of critical historical biblical studies is that it is indeed critical, but that it grew, in origin, out of a context of religious believing. One would expect, as a result, that some of its practitioners, if it were a truly critical discipline, would eventually abandon the beliefs which prompted the study in the first place, or at least that they would hold those beliefs in a highly qualified way. And this is precisely what we do find. Julius Wellhausen, David Strauss, Jack Spong, Don Cupitt, Graham Shaw, Gerd Lüdemann, Bart Ehrman, and many others have been forced to this conclusion by the interpretive results of their study of Christian and other scriptures. But simply forcing biblical criticism into the scientific paradigm is unhelpful in providing some understanding of what such critical historical scholarship consists in. These are studies carried out within the humanities, and the point that philosophers like Philip Kitcher are trying to make is that they are as worthy to be recognised as ways to the achievement of knowledge as are the natural sciences, even though, given their subject matter, the kinds of certainties achieved in the humanities are not as reliable or as stable as scientific knowledge achieved at the core of those scientific disciplines that are favoured when scientists speak in terms of how we know what is really true.
My response here is short: real Biblical scholarship, the kind that actually works out the sources of the Bible, when they were written, and so on, is similar to all good studies of history, in that it uses empirical methods, testability, hypotheses, and so on to understand where scripture came from. This is science broadly conceived, and is hardly “another way of knowing”. The reason certainty is harder to achieve is because this (like evolution) is a form of inquiry resting on historical reconstruction, which is more difficult than, say, science based on lab experiments. But it’s still science as I conceive of it broadly, and it is certainly, contra Eric, based on “empirical evidence.”
His second example is morality:
Morality, as I suggested before, is such a discipline, and there is interpretive truth to be achieved in morality (and ethics more generally), just as there is observational truth to be attained by science. . . (I will return to morality on another day). .
I look forward to that day and to Eric’s presentation of what he considers to be the “interpretive truths” to be found in morality.
Eric’s third example involves a book he just read, John Gray’s Black Mass: How Religion Led the world into Crisis. Eric describes Gray’s thesis in great detail, which is that modern revolutionary movements have taken over the features and strategies of older religious millenarian movements. Gray sees this as a bad development because he doesn’t see that political action can actually change the human condition.
Eric disagrees with Gray on points of fact, for example, on whether the features of millenarian movements really are shared by modern revolutionary movements. And this is something susceptible to empirical study. But that of course doesn’t answer the question of to what extent millenarianism influences modern ideology. That seems to be a matter for subjective interpretation that may not be settled, just as we can’t settle to what extent, exactly, impressionists were influenced by Turner. But Eric sees this as a question that does have an answer, and one not approachable by science:
The question as to the accuracy of Gray’s diagnosis and prognosis will be left aside for the moment. What I want the reader to see is that what Gray is saying here is not something that can be settled by the methods of science. What is at issue is the interpretation of historical movements and their culmination. The evidence, such as it is, is interpretive.
. . . Scientific studies of politics, society and economics are obviously essential if our understanding is to be well grounded, but what Gray’s work demonstrates is the importance of interpretive evidence in historical understanding, just as it is in our understanding of morality as well as in other aspects of the humanities. Trying to reduce our ability to know to the propositions and techniques of science — a growing tendency which Pigliucci and Kitcher deprecate as scientism — is to leave out too much knowledge that is of great importance to us. If the new atheism is going to have anything of enduring value to contribute to the ongoing project of improving the quality of human life by insisting upon the need for us rationally to understand ourselves and the world, room must be made for the humanities, like history, and the interpretive techniques that lie at the heart of their practice.
I am not sure what Eric means by “interpretive evidence”. There is either evidence or no evidence, for all scientific evidence involves interpretation to some extent. Can we have “interpretive evidence” that it is wrong to torture someone? Is there “interpretive evidence” that most modern revolutionary ideology comes from millenarianism? To the extent that these questions can be settled at all, they must be settled by appeal to facts, and facts that scholars agree on. If there is no agreement, then there is no answer, just as if most scientists don’t agree that water has two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, that is not a scientific fact either.
I am not sure what kind of “interpretive evidence” Eric sees that doesn’t involve what he considers an important aspect of the scientific approach, “referring to empirical evidence.”
So I pose these two questions to Uncle Eric (I’ll email him about this post):
1. What questions do you think can be answered pretty definitively, or what facts and truths can be established, without referring to empirical evidence?
2. What are the answers to those questions that have been derived from “other ways of knowing”?