The folly of “The folly of scientism”

It’s open season on scientism again!

The New Atlantis is an online journal of science and technology (I haven’t heard of it, but I don’t get out much), and this month features an article on scientism by Austin L. Hughes, an evolutionary biologist at the University of South Carolina (where I’ll be speaking in early February as part of a 3-university “South Carolina evolution and barbecue tour”). Hughes is an evolutionary biologist with wide-ranging interests, and I’ve really liked some of his papers.

Unfortunately, his ten-page essay in The New Atlantis, “The Folly of Scientism,” is not one of them.  It’s a strongly-worded critique of scientism, which Hughes conceives of as scientists’ claim that they only their fields can provide true knowledge of the universe, and can also answer questions that aren’t really in their bailiwick:

Central to scientism is the grabbing of nearly the entire territory of what were once considered questions that properly belong to philosophy. Scientism takes science to be not only better than philosophy at answering such questions, but the only means of answering them. For most of those who dabble in scientism, this shift is unacknowledged, and may not even be recognized. But for others, it is explicit. [Peter] Atkins, for example, is scathing in his dismissal of the entire field: “I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance.”

Is scientism defensible? Is it really true that natural science provides a satisfying and reasonably complete account of everything we see, experience, and seek to understand — of every phenomenon in the universe? And is it true that science is more capable, even singularly capable, of answering the questions that once were addressed by philosophy? This subject is too large to tackle all at once. But by looking briefly at the modern understandings of science and philosophy on which scientism rests, and examining a few case studies of the attempt to supplant philosophy entirely with science, we might get a sense of how the reach of scientism exceeds its grasp.

(By the way, you militant atheists might want to read Atkins’s great 6-page essay that so angered Hughes. It’s called “Science as truth” and can be dowloaded here; if you can’t get it, email me for a pdf. Atkins, a very famous chemist, is a British national treasure whose popular books and technical books are best-sellers but who is not generally recognized for his “strident” atheism.)

The big problem with Hughes’s essay is that despite his claim that there are other ways of apprehending truth beyond science—ways that involve the three areas of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology—he gives not a single example of a question that those disciplines have answered.  And, indeed, although practicioners of those disciplines may suggest answers to questions like “what is the meaning of life?” or “is it ever permissible to torture someone?,” those answers are subjective, not universally agreed on, and don’t involve “truth” in the same way scientists conceive it. One reader, responding to a suggestion that “truths” be divided into “objective (e.g., scientific) truths” and “subjective truths,” argued that we should just call these categories “truth” and “opinion” respectively!

A characteristic of articles on “scientism” is their loud proclamation that there are other ways of knowing truth, combined with a complete failure to cite any questions that been answered by these other ways. Hughes’s essay falls right into this pattern. Oh, he disses science a lot, accusing it of often failing to progress (he argues, for instance, that behavioral ecology “oscillates happily” and never makes progress, a statement that is dead wrong), and of enabling bad stuff like Lysenkosim in the Soviet Union and eugenics in countries like Germany and the U.S.

Hughes even drags in Alvin Plantinga’s argument that science can’t explain why human can do science, for natural selection hasn’t really given us the refined abilities to discern truth the way that modern scientists do. But that’s bunk. Natural selection has given us faculties to perceive truths about what is outside of our brains, and also bequeathed us brains big enough that we can refine our methods of discerning what’s out there in ways that keep us from deceiving ourselves. That involves prediction, replication, and observation or experiment by multiple people. The equipment for our doing science was installed by natural selection, but of course the actual doing of modern science is a spandrel, not an adaptation that was produced by selection.

Hughes makes lots of fancy-pants talk about Quine, philosophy, and positivism, but in the end his essay is a dog’s breakfast that leaves the reader with no idea of what the “other ways of knowing” really are, and what questions they have actually answered. Instead, one comes away with a disquieting feeling that science isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But Hughes’s critique of science (viz., his attack on behavioral ecology) is unconvincing.

His conclusion (you can read the essay if you wish, but I doubt you’ll learn much) is this:

In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something — a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards — has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.

In other words—and we’ve heard this before, usually from religious people—scientism is a superstition, a faith akin to religious belief.  But this statement bears no weight since Hughes hasn’t proffered a single question that’s been answered by metaphysics, ethics, or other “ways of knowing.” In fact, he winds up by issuing an idle threat about what will happen if we hubristic scientists continue to ignore those other ways:

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

In other words, scientism will destroy the credibility of science.  LOL!

I’m not sure whether “scientism,” if it even exists (which I doubt), pretends to be something other than what it is. If it does, what does it pretend to be? Hughes is whistling in the dark here, for nothing is going to happen even if a few scientists do make exaggerated claims about the boundaries of their field.  Science will progress as it always has, answering one question after another, while religion and other “ways of knowing” remain stuck in the mire.  The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

279 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Shallit
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    The New Atlantis is the home of some real fringe people, such as Stephen Talbott. If you thought the piece by Austin Hughes was bad, read the first two pieces they published here.

  2. Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Only science is science. Everything else is opinion.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Science is truth. Philosophy is opinion. There is nothing else.

  3. sailor1031
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    “…Scientism takes science to be not only better than philosophy at answering such questions, but the only means of answering them.”

    And those questions that have actually been answered by philosophy are….?

    • Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      “Why should the University continue funding a philosophy department?”

      “What’s a good way to make philosophy seem as academically and intellectually productive as science?”

      “Can we really convince generation after generation of freshmen that ‘Do other people see colors the same way I do?’ is an interesting question?”

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        LOL!

  4. Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I think it’s quite telling to compare the different ways that philosophers and scientists approach the subject of ethics.

    Philosophers love thought experiments such as the infamous “trolley problems.” What they fail to note is that said problems do nothing to actually investigate ethics but rather are merely crude re-enactments of a very famous real experiment in ethics, done by Stanley Milgram. A man in a lab coat tells the subject to flip a lever that kills a fat man, and, surprise! the subjects generally go ahead and flip the lever, even if it’s only imaginary.

    The current trend these days in scientific approaches to ethics revolve around informed consent, and effectiveness is gauged by empirical analysis of, for example, patient recovery and survival rates and patient satisfaction surveys.

    The results speak for themselves.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Brygida Berse
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      I wouldn’t completely dismiss the utility of “trolley problems” and the like. They illustrate the fact that philosophy (in this case, ethics) can be useful in posing questions. It’s the answers that it can’t deliver.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        I’m not even convinced that the questions that philosophers ask are all that useful, or that they’re ones that skilled researchers in the field wouldn’t have asked themselves.

        If you look at all the truly novel and useful ideas of the past few centuries, they’ve all been the result not of philosophical questions, but of rational analysis of empirical data.

        Einstein, Schrödinger, Hubble, Darwin, Pasteur, Watson and Crick…all were busy with the data, which led to their discoveries. What philosopher since the days of Democritus has come up with an idea as inventive as Dalton’s atomic theory, or Rutherford’s discovery of the density distributions of atoms, or Bohr’s planetary atomic model, or Heisenberg’s refinement of the understanding of the shapes of the orbital electron shells?

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Brygida Berse
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          I think ethics can be viewed as one of those human endeavors that are not exactly science, but still ask important questions. Of course, in order to be legitimate, it has to maintain certain intellectual rigor, not unlike that in science, and it uses knowledge made available through, for example, neurobiology or social studies, but the questions it poses do not belong directly to those areas. 

          • Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

            Think instead of ethics as a very close cousin to game theory and you’ll understand why it’s properly understood as an entirely scientific field.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Simon Spiegal
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

              Where do you get the starting principles for your “game” from and why should anyone accept them?

            • Brygida Berse
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              I’m not going to pretend that I know a great deal about game theory :-), but isn’t it yet another branch of science that can inform ethics (but cannot replace it)?

              Anyway, the issue at hand is not whether ethics can be regarded as a scientific field, but whether it is useful, i.e. whether it can ask important questions and/or systematize them. One of the ways to do that would be through thought experiments like the trolley problem.

              • corio37
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

                All the ‘trolley problems’ do is tell us how people like to think they would behave in a given set of circumstances. Researchers who are interested in what people actually DO need to go outdoors and travel to places where people are actually making life-and-death decisions; but that’s expensive and messy, not to mention dangerous. Making up fancy hypotheticals is much more pleasant.

            • Tulse
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

              In almost all instantiations of game theory, the goal is for individual to determine what behaviour will produce the best outcome for them. It says nothing about what the individual should count as “best outcome”.

            • Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              Simon, Brygida, and Tulse,

              While, in the strictest sense, it is true that game theory or other forms of scientific analysis cannot tell you a priori what sorts of goals you should start with, it’s very straightforward to take whatever staring point you have and then formulate a recommendation for how best to achieve said goal.

              And, as it turns out, almost all goals a person might have can more effectively be achieved with the help of a healthy society than by either going it alone or — much worse — actively working against the wishes of said society.

              As such, the problems essentially and effectively bootstrap themselves — and they’re self-constraining, as well.

              Take even a silly extreme, such that you wish to go down in history as the person responsible for killing the most number of people ever. To do so, you’re going to have to build a massive army…and those soldiers aren’t going to do your dirty work unless you provision and protect them. Indeed, you’re going to have to build massive societal infrastructures just in order to ultimately bring it all down. In then end, the structure you need to build to accomplish the job might even be too strong for you to demolish in the desired way.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Tulse
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

                Ben, I agree with your comments, but they still don’t really address the issue. For example, on the positive side, neither game theory proper nor the broader concerns you raise tell me whether I should sacrifice my life for my spouse — they may tell me the best way to achieve that value if I hold it, but they can’t tell me that it is a value I should hold.

                As for more negative examples, your claims that societal organization may naturally resist immoral arrangements seems unconvincing to me in light of history. Slavery flourished in the world for thousands of years, even in societies with such massive social infrastructure as Rome. In any case, that’s still not an argument about what values we should have, just which may be more easily realized.

              • Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                Tulse, I would be far from the first person to argue against the checkered past of humanity, including depressingly long stretches of commonplace acceptance and endorsement of the truly horrific.

                But I would also point out that, just like Evolution itself, this is all big-picture stuff that is a general trend, with plenty of room for local minima and regressions.

                See especially Pinker’s recent work on The Better Angels of our Nature to see this process at work. With all our ups and downs, including all our periodic extended depressions, the overall trend is emphatically — though gently — upwards.

                And it makes sense. A society where a significant portion of the population is shackled by slavery is one in which the slaves have no opportunity to provide significant advancement. Their free neighbors will out-compete them because they’ve got that many more people available to advance their aims, whatever those aims may be.

                Indeed, the poverty we see in the Muslim world outside of the winners of the oil lottery is due in no small part to the fact that fully half their populations (the women) are kept from doing anything other than menial labor. That’s half as many engineers, doctors, scientists, economists, and more; the women are a net drag on the society rather than strong contributors.

                If you were a man in such a country and you wanted to live in a magnificent palace, you’d have much better odds of doing so if your pool of architects and artisans were twice as large. Therefore, you should be in support of full and equal rights for women. See how it works?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                Ben, you are demonstrating a remarkable faith in liberal egalitarian political principles producing the most desired outcomes for all individuals in a society. I think any dictator would disagree with you — they would never have attained their wealth and power in a more egalitarian arrangement.

              • Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

                Tulse, as I indicated, there’re certainly plenty of opportunities for sideways and even backwards progression. We see that in evolutionary systems, as well.

                But, I ask you: of all the successful societies today, how many are ruled by dictators? Of all the societies ruled by dictators today, how many are stable? If you’re a dictator in today’s world, what are the odds that you’re going to die an old man in your sleep as opposed to violently at the hands of revolutionaries?

                Also: what is the ratio of populist societies to authoritarian ones today compared with a century ago, five centuries ago, ten centuries ago, and fifty centuries ago?

                Just as it’s likely we’ll never be rid of parasites and disease, it’s likely we’ll never be rid of psychopathic authoritarians. Hell, we’ve got a perfect example right here of how they come to power with Gary W and his torture apologies, vocal support in favor of prohibition, and constant spouting of propaganda dismissing the dangers of fossil fuels.

                But that doesn’t mean that parasite infestations and disease are good, or that it’s a winning strategy to be a parasite, or that it’s a good idea for either a society to have a dictator or that a person should want to be a dictator.

                Generally, either the host kills the parasite or the parasite kills the host…and dies with it. Best to be free of parasites, and not to be one yourself.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

                Ben Goren,

                You just called me a “dyed-in-the-wool uber-Libertarian Randite.” Then you called me an “uncivilized barbarian unworthy of respect.” Now you call me a “psychopathic authoritarian.”

                Keep it up, and I’ll be firing off an email to Jerry about your persistent and egregrious violations of his comment policy.

        • Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          “What philosopher since the days of Democritus has come up with an idea as inventive as Dalton’s atomic theory, or Rutherford’s discovery of the density distributions of atoms, or Bohr’s planetary atomic model, or Heisenberg’s refinement of the understanding of the shapes of the orbital electron shells?”

          You may not count Alan Turing or Kurt Godel as “philosophers”, but by most definitions of the term, their motivations for their questions (universal computation, and incompleteness of mathematical axioms, respectively) were “philosophical”. Just take “universal computation” for example: this was one area where theory clearly proceeded experiment and data, and was instrumental in “data” being generated at all.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted December 9, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

            Turing used his mad maths skillz to create scientific and engineering solutions to ‘philosophical’ problems, so he’s not exactly the poster-boy for anti-scientism.

          • Posted December 9, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            If philosophy gets to claim mathematics as belonging to it because two of the greatest mathematicians of all time answered questions that no philosopher had ever been able to touch then or since, then that means that Krauss and Hawking are also philosophers when they’re using quantum cosmology to explain the origins of the universe.

            Personally, I think that’s as ludicrously laughable as a theologian claiming that all scientists are doing religious work because they’re uncovering the mind of some deity.

            It takes no genius to wonder where it all came from or if it’s even theoretically possible for us to understand it all. College students do all that and more every night in their dorm rooms, with or without the assistance of mind-altering drugs.

            But actually doing the hard work of making observations and rationally analyzing them?

            That’s where your answers actually come from, and that’s science’s job, not philosophy’s.

            Cheers,

            b&

          • Al Hiebert
            Posted December 10, 2012 at 1:15 am | Permalink

            How would you judge the truth of the following proposition: “For one human to enslave another human is always in fact wrong”? By what scientific procedure would you determine if this proposition is true or false? Supplementary question: In what period of history was the maximum number of humans enslaved by others globally? Answer: Today. Further question: If slavery is a social problem, how might science solve it? What is being done by scientists to solve it?

            • John Scanlon, FCD
              Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

              Your supplementary question can only be answered by scientific (including historical) methods, once a definition of slavery has been set (arbitrarily, as there are different categories that may or may not be included in any estimate for a place and time).

              Given the arbitrariness of that definition, the first question probably does not have a binary truth value. Extending ‘always’ to the past, where forms of slavery were accepted as normal and justified by philosophers and theologians, is… moot. Causally futile.

              Scientists can do something about it (within their job description) by rigorous analysis and wide publication of the facts, and (as regular human beings) in any other way that strikes them as reasonable.

            • Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

              In addition to John Scanlon’s response, you might also ask how philosophy and theology answer the same questions. Of course their questions depend entirely on the opinions of the philosophers and theologians and the presuppositions they use in their answers. That is to say, their answers are essentially arbitrary and not really any answer at all. And so you get a vast range of answers, much flannel, and never any practical resolution of real world problems that couldn’t have been arrived at by simple human empirical experience – e.g. when I keep taking stuff from people they get upset.

              At least empirically we can attempt to discover what makes humans tick, biologically and socially, and then make choices based on some preference for an outcome – such as ‘wellbeing’. That isn’t to say that the empirical answers will always give simple and obvious direction to our choices, but it might make a better start than the arbitrary pontifications from theology and some philosophy about what moral codes we should live by, or even what morality is about, or the false is/ought barrier.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        Both science and philosophy are no more than the rigorous application of our basic human capabilities: sensing and probing the world and thinking about what we find in order to inform further sensing and probing, …: empiricism.

        At one point philosophy was pretty much all we had for the interesting tough questions about humans. Now science replaces it. But the critical thinking that philosophers (are supposed to) do isn’t restricted to philosophy, but is now a critical part of science.

        Yes, some philosophers, by focusing on thinking about thinking, can pose some interesting questions. But many scientists working at the edges of our understanding, in neuroscience, evolution and physics, for example, have a far better perspective for asking more of the useful questions and fewer of the inane head-up-your-ass introspective questions that some philosophers pose. There are whole areas of philosophy that really are nothing more than navel gazing; and differ from religion only in the lack of some presupposed deity – i.e. it’s made-up crap.

        And many philosophers are really bad at their own field, seemingly bad at philosophy in some positive relation to the extent of the navel gazing.

        On the other hand there are some good philosophers who do keep abreast of science and do contribute to how we think about doing science. But they don’t do too much that’s different to what scientists do when contemplating their science. They engage in useful interactive debates with scientists.

        The flaky philosophers instead simply take pot-shots at science from the outside – which often says more about their ignorance of science than it does about the philosophical capabilities of the scientists they criticise.

        • Al Hiebert
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

          How would you judge the truth of this proposition “Torturing small babies just for fun is always wrong”? Is this proposition true or is it false? By what scientific procedure might one determine the correct answer?

          • Posted December 10, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

            In any cosmologically discoverable sense, or any God given sense, there are no morals whatsoever. Therefore the statement has no truth value at all. You could even say that, cosmologically, it is fine to kill babies. Killing babies for fun has no cosmological meaning whatsoever, since, as far as I’m aware the cosmos does not go in for fun.

            But, to humans who are biologically and culturally driven to maintain systems of moral order it becomes a true statement in that context. But it is loaded with assumptions about the source of human morality. It is made true by definition.

            There is nothing outside the human context in which the moral codes that humans apply to themselves have any meaning whatsoever.

            But the statement about babies is also empirically discoverable, in the context of human behaviour. We have discovered, by observation, that generally humans are driven to hold to this truth. What we are really saying is that humans believe it to be true. In a way it’s like the case of religious belief, when the religious claim their beliefs are true. The psychological act of belief can be empirically investigated, and it can be found to be true that believer X believes religious claim Y. But that does not make religious claim Y true.

            So, it may be true that for humans “Torturing small babies just for fun is always wrong” is a belief – it is true that they believe it, generally. But “Torturing small babies just for fun is always wrong” is not true in some cosmological sense.

            I happen to hold to the statement “Torturing small babies just for fun is always wrong” for the sole reason that I’m human and I both feel that this should be true for me and other humans because I’m biologically and culturally driven to feel this should be true, or I’m biologically driven to reason (rationalise) that it should be true. Other than the empirical observation that this is how humans feel there are no absolute or extra-human empirical reasons for any moral code.

            • Al Hiebert
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

              Ron, when you say, “In any cosmologically discoverable sense, or any God given sense, there are no morals whatsoever. Therefore the statement has no truth value at all.”

              My question then is: Does your assertion above have any truth value at all? If not, why should anyone take it seriously? If your assertion above does indeed have some truth value, then what warrant might anyone provide for it?

              Can you see that the very statement of nihilism is self-defeating? Have you read this past Monday’s article “Humanism for Children” in Washington Post? See:http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/humanism-for-children/.

              Do you see moral nihilism as contradictory to humanism?

            • Al Hiebert
              Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

              Ron, when you say, “So, it may be true that for humans ‘Torturing small babies just for fun is always wrong’ is a belief – it is true that they believe it, generally. But ‘Torturing small babies just for fun is always wrong’ is not true in some cosmological sense” do you mean that in actuality the belief that ‘Torturing small babies just for fun is always wrong’ is merely an illusion which some (perhaps all)humans happen to believe to be actuality true?

              Can science really rule out objective morality? Are humans actually confined to study merely the psychology of human morality and not ever attempt to seek the actual moral truth of any moral proposition? If so, why do Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, etc. express such moral outrage at the thought that some parents teach their own children that some behaviors are actually wrong in themselves (deontologically)? Should Dawkins, et al. simply observe that this is what some parents do (psychologically) and leave the matter right there? Do Dawkins, et al. simply
              have no warrant for their moral outrage?

              Nihilism would argue that no human has warrant for their moral outrage on any human behavior. Is this your view? If so, can you convince any one of its validity, including Dawkins, et al.?

          • Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:08 am | Permalink

            Al,

            My statement, in short, that “there are no morals ‘out there'” is an inference from lack of evidence that there are. I’d happily retract it if you could show that there are morals ‘out there’ in any sense.

            I make the inference that “humans use morals codes, ethics” from experience, both personal, because I do, and by observation of others, who appear to, and from statements by many theists, philosophers, atheists that report that they do, and appear to. Human behaviour is the only context in which I see morals being applied. They are applied variously, but with a few common themes. I infer from evolution that our morals are based on biology, but have also been adapted by our various cultural systems, including religion.

            So that’s the extent to which my various statements have truth value: empirically.

            “If not, why should anyone take it seriously?”

            That clearly isn’t good enough for some people. They want rock solid logical proof. Some people think they have it, in their holy books (written by humans), or that it morality is something independent of humans, something ‘out there’ to be discovered. I’ve never seen a proof or any evidence that these supposed sources are anything but baloney.

            “Can you see that the very statement of nihilism is self-defeating?”

            Moral nihilism gets a bad rep, just as scientism does. It is misused in that those who tend to use it infer a lack of moral values in the person who is a moral nihilist, which is clearly incorrect. Moral nihilism is the position that there is no intrinsic morality out there in any sense. But that doesn’t mean that (a) moral nihilists don’t have moral values, or (b) moral nihilists don’t have another explanation for morality in humans. That’s not to say a moral nihilist couldn’t also be (a) and (b); but with the exception of some psychopaths I don’t imagine any humans can be totally devoid of some moral codes simply because it’s hard to fight your biology.

            It’s often those that use ‘scientism’ as a derogatory term that really mean (a) when they accuse someone of moral nihilism, and my response is usually that I’m not that type of moral nihilist. I’m not saying you are accusing me of that, but I just wanted to be clear.

            So, no. I don’t see moral nihilism as self-defeating at all. How do you suppose it is?

            “Do you see moral nihilism as contradictory to humanism?”

            No. Why on earth would I. Many humanists are moral nihilists, in the correct sense. They think morality is a human construction. Maybe some do think there is some absolute morality out there. Raymond Tallis seems to think that. And guess what, he’s forever blowing off about ‘scientism’, and even ‘neuromania’ in his attacks on what he sees as the misuse of neuroscience. He also fears desperately for our humanity in his attacks on the suggestion that we are animals, as if this means we are ‘only’ animals.

            As to morality being an illusion, well, yes and no. It is observable that we do have moral feelings. But without supportive evidence those that feel very deeply that morals are ‘out there’ somewhere for humans to discover are mistaken. You might call it a mental illusion. Visual illusions are easy to spot when they are pointed out, but while you experience them, even though you know what’s going on intellectually, you can’t avoid the illusion. I think it therefore reasonable to call some internal cognitive events as illusions. So you could say we have the illusion that there must be morals out there to be discovered and adhered to. Even though I’m a moral nihilist, in the correct sense, I feel very deeply that I can’t hurt my children, for example. It just ‘feels wrong’. But I accept that there are deep and ancient biological drives at work there, and a heck of a lot of social programming.

            “Can science really rule out objective morality?”

            No. There’s a Nobel Peace Prize waiting right there for you. Go get it.

            “Are humans actually confined to study merely the psychology of human morality and not ever attempt to seek the actual moral truth of any moral proposition?”

            Psychology and biology, and neuroscience, and evolution, yes they are. Until you win your Nobel prize and demonstrate the source of moral truths.

            On Dawkins and Hitchens, well yes. They are humans so that feel moral urges. They’ve given it a little thought, not seen evidence for absolute morals, figured out that they come from biology and culture; and they find no evidence for any religious claims. So they do find it morally objectionable that children are indoctrinated with religion, particularly the more fundamentalist ones that instil some pretty bad ideas into the children.

            You seem to suggest Dawkins and Hitchens might resort to moral relativism: “Should Dawkins, et al. simply observe that this is what some parents do (psychologically) and leave the matter right there?”

            Well, moral relativism is the actual state of affairs, as a description of morality as it stands. We all do have variations on what we consider to be good and bad. Perhaps a better description is that we observe that there is moral variation. That would then leave us asking ‘should we be moral relativists’, should we live and let live perhaps shrug off genital mutilation as a mere cultural practice that we have no moral right to object to.

            The trouble is that empirically we seem unable to do that; or when it has been tried, when postmodernists have gone in for moral relativism, there’s always some straw that breaks the camel’s back, some practice where they say, ah well, of course that’s immoral. It doesn’t work; and maybe it can’t work because we can’t escape our evolved biology and our culture as much as we think we can.

            These arguments tend to get beyond basic moral codes, and even beyond meta-ethics. It’s as if we are asking, is it morally right to have moral codes? Well, if you have moral codes, then it is for you, and if you don’t it isn’t. So, while I observe moral variation is the case, as a description of the state of morals in the world, I don’t think observing moral relativism is practically possible. We tend to come down on one side or the other of a moral dilemma; and though we might reason about it it’s hard let go of our moral drives.

            So, my position on, say, genital mutilation, is that it is wrong because it harms humans and for many victims ruins their lives. The same can be said for some cases where children are indoctrinated with fundamentalist religion. My human moral sensibility is irked by these practices.

            “Nihilism would argue that no human has warrant for their moral outrage on any human behavior.”

            So, you have got it wrong. Here’s the short wiki version:

            “Moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. Moral nihilists consider morality to be constructed, a complex set of rules and recommendations that may give a psychological, social, or economical advantage to its adherents, but is otherwise without universal or even relative truth in any sense.”

            I’ve emphasised the bits you’re missing. Note that it does not insist that moral nihilists do not hold to any moral codes themselves. The warrant for moral outrage is entirely human.

            • Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:24 am | Permalink

              +1

            • Al Hiebert
              Posted December 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

              Ron, thanks for your thoughtful and candid interactions above. I heartily agree with many of your observations, e.g., “many philosophers are really bad at their own field,” that we do “not insist that moral nihilists do not hold to any moral codes themselves,” that “I feel very deeply that I can’t hurt my children, for example. It just ‘feels wrong’,” etc.

              The primary concern I’m trying to express is that when we humans (of every possible moral code) judge that any action (e.g., torturing small babies just for fun, mutilating female genitals, racial segregation laws, etc.) to be “morally wrong,” we normally mean that judgement to be objectively (deonotologically) valid, not merely an expression of our personal subjective moral code, which others might accept or reject, depending on whatever their own personal subjective moral code might happen to be.

              In part this is where I regard all versions of utilitarianism to be fundamentally flawed, though useful in deliberating potential legislation, as was Jeremy Bentham’s original intent. All versions of utilitarianism are teleologically-based, i.e., goal-oriented, determining the moral validity of an act or a code on the merits of either the intended outcomes or the actual consequences (versions vary). This approach leads to virtually meaningless (even if entertaining) games such as various trolley dilemmas. I really do not think such games can establish the morality of torturing small babies just for fun, mutilating female genitals, racial segregation laws, etc.

              When Dr. Martin Luther King declared racial segregation laws to be fundamentally immoral, he was not expressing a merely personal subjective moral code (as a moral nihilist might suggest) or a more useful way to re-write US laws (as a utilitarian might suggest). He was appealing to the deonotological value that our Creator has created all humans equally in His image, and the US constitution makes this its foundation. I happen to think Dr. King was right to do so, even if I cannot provide a logically compelling demonstration of that conviction. I happen to think that no moral nihilist can provide a logically compelling demonstration of the conviction that Dr. King was right to challenge US racial segregation laws in the 1960s, but that he was wrong to do so on the basis of the conviction that our Creator has created all humans equally in His image.

              Sure, people “want rock solid logical proof.” Even if I’d get a Nobel prize for providing such, I cannot provide a logically compelling demonstration that any Creator of any sort even exists, let alone that He has created all humans equally in His image, and thereby provides the moral absolute to which Dr. King appealed. To be quite candid, I cannot provide a logically compelling demonstration that any proposition concerning a matter of fact is indeed true, nor do I think any other human can do so, in spite of Descartes, et al. I think I have direct immediate awareness of my own existence, my consciousness, memories, perceptions, etc., but I think I cannot provide a logically compelling demonstration of these to anyone else.

              To be quite candid, I think that anyone who demands a logically compelling demonstration concerning any matter of fact is confusing induction with deduction. In induction (used in science, history, theology and other rational disciplines) we collect relevant observations and seek to suggest best plausible explanations — with appropriate tentativeness and humble openness to further relevant observations and better explanations. Now, I regard as a matter of fact the existence and amazing characteristics of our cosmos, including its coming into existence some 13.8 billion years ago.

              Also, I regard as a matter of fact the truth of propositions such as 1) that out of absolute nothingness, absolutely nothing can emerge without some effective cause; 2) that if something exists now (and it does), then something must have existed from eternity; hence, 3) the question comes: what is this something that must have existed from eternity? Given that the astronomical empirical data convincingly show that our cosmos came into existence some 13.8 billion years ago, then our cosmos cannot be that something that must have existed from eternity. These observations lead me to an inductive conclusion that we need to postulate a creator of some sort. The observations of many amazing dimensions of our cosmos lead me to an inductive conclusion that this creator was intelligent. And because I regard as a matter of fact the existence objective deontological moral dimensions of our decision-making I’m convinced that this creator was moral.

              Though I recognize that Jerry and others believe that Jesus never existed, I’m convinced that historical case is overwhelming not merely of His existence, but also of his actual death by crucifixion, the validity of his tomb being empty three days later, and His life-transforming appearances over the next few weeks – indicating inductively that He was actually this creator in human incarnation. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, Dr. King and I agree that this is a moral norm, whether or not our culture agrees. The same goes for many other moral norms.

              You say,
              ‘that “there are no morals ‘out there’” is an inference from lack of evidence that there are. I’d happily retract it if you could show that there are morals ‘out there’ in any sense.’

              In my view, the empirical data to which I have alluded above (all too briefly — it’s bed-time) provide evidence in support of moral norms expressed by Jesus, etc.

              You say,
              “I infer from evolution that our morals are based on biology, but have also been adapted by our various cultural systems, including religion.”

              I see survival adaptations as largely irrelevant to the pursuit of truth and valid moral judgments. In ethics we need truth, not merely subjective preferences or the products of biology or a merely physical brain.

              When I say, “the very statement of nihilism is self-defeating” I mean primarily that nihilism (e.g., your “nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral”) is a supposedly objective absolute value judgement that absolutely no value judgements carry objective validity.

              You say,
              “Moral nihilists consider morality to be constructed, a complex set of rules and recommendations that may give a psychological, social, or economical advantage to its adherents, but is otherwise without universal or even relative truth in any sense.”

              Can you see that you are making a claimed objective truth statement about morality that no objective truth statement about morality is possible? Social constructionism in the service of survival of our species is a woefully inadequate account of human morality, IMHO. Biology or a merely physical brain may facilitate survival of our species but they are not designed to deliver truth.

              Of course, all of the above convictions are contested by unnumbered metaphysical naturalists (e.g., atheists, agnostics, sceptics, nihilists, etc.), but on balance, I’m convinced that most, if not all of them, can be successfully addressed — if one is honestly open to consider the relevant data in a cumulative inductive way.

              Does this make sense?

              • abandonwoo
                Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

                Al — paragraphs 7 & 8 presume facts not in evidence, do they not? Belief in the claims made requires I place faith in their veracity for no better reason than the desire of Christians that these things are actually true. The only definition of truth that I accept is that truth is exact correspondence with reality. A deity as First Cause is not supported by evidence, nor is the existence of Jesus, nor is resurrection/afterlife. I do not accept presupposition of a deity as evidence of a deity, or Biblical accounts — especially of Jesus — as meeting acceptable historical criteria. Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life make for poor historical fiction, and the accounts of the crucifixion/resurrection differ too significantly to even be considered as accurate observations of an actual event. Assuming, of course, from the outset that one is at all willing to entertain the fantastic as real. Faith is blinding, it is false hope at best, and even if it causes no harm it is still all for nothing.

              • Posted December 14, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

                Al,

                It isn’t clear to me why time can’t have a beginning. Are you aware of any convincing proof that there was a ‘before’ the big bang? If time simply started then, it seems to me that there is no need (or room)for a creator.

                Am I missing something?

          • Posted December 14, 2012 at 5:15 am | Permalink

            Al,

            I agree Utilitarianism is fundamentally flawed, along with all philosophical systems that make specific claims about morality, and along with all science – basically anything humans do. My objection to some philosophy is that there seems to be a desire for certainty that we simply can’t get at. We have finite physical brains, not designed at all let alone not designed to do philosophy in the intellectual way we attempt to do it now. The excusable mistake made in pre-scientific times was to assume that we can think our way to answers to problems, when really we are evolved primarily from physical experiential animals. The thinking is a useful adaptation for getting around in the environment. I don’t think it does philosophy half as well as philosophers think it does.

            “He [MLK] was appealing to the deontological value that our Creator …”

            Whoa! Stop right there. Where did this Creator come from? The Creator is a figment of the imagination, a presupposition for which there is no evidence. Without any evidence for his Creator his whole morality folds.

            “… and the US constitution makes this its foundation.”

            Where? Can you demonstrate that?

            “I happen to think Dr. King was right to do so, even if I cannot provide a logically compelling demonstration of that conviction.”

            I wouldn’t go so far as to ask you to prove any of this, as I don’t think you can. Evidence would do. So far you have offered what MLK claimed, which, knowing just a bit about MLK I would accept as evidence of what he believed. But I wouldn’t accept it as evidence that what he believed was true. There’s a big difference.

            “I happen to think that no moral nihilist can provide a logically compelling demonstration of the conviction that Dr. King was right to challenge…”

            I happen to agree with you, since this is pretty much the case for any evidence based system of enquiry. I don’t think there is any logical reason whatsoever that I should not be an outright racist paid up member of the KKK.

            Oh, except for the fact that I’m one of those particular humans who has deep biologically and culturally driven urges about empathy for my fellow man, and that I see no scientific reason for making any significant discrimination against any person whatsoever, based on their race (which is on dodgy ground scientifically) gender or sexual orientation (stating these three simply because they have been part of the most divisive nature of Christianity – with Islam it’s only the last two). I remember MLK and his death, and as an impressionable developing teen was as distraught as any Christian at the death of a man who was doing so much for equality – I had a UK perspective on the movement. That he was as crazy in his Christianity as anyone of faith wasn’t enough for me to consign him to being a non-human, an outcast, a sinner, destined for hell – which of course is how many Christians see atheists.

            So, in the end, empirically, by observing my own feelings and deducing that I hate racism with a passion, there does turn out to be why I should not join the KKK – I don’t fit. Not because racism is deontological determined by some imagined deity.

            “These observations lead me to an inductive conclusion that we need to postulate a creator … ”

            You are mistaken on a few counts. Don’t mistake our universe, as described by current cosmology, to be the end of the story. There are a number of issues regarding possible pre-cursors to our universe, or what lies outside our universe, or multiple universes, that all depend entirely on presuppositions we have about space, time, etc. The thing is, we do not have the foggiest idea what is involved in the matter of universe creation, or if ‘creation’ is a meaningful term at all, for universes. The first cause argument for God presupposes a required God. It is neither a deduction or an induction. And I don’t see how you can inductively conclude that you should postulate something. Postulating is making stuff up, asserting an assumption, using a presupposition – which of course is exactly what a creator is. There is nothing that should lead us to postulate a creator. We can imagine it as some possibility, the God hypothesis, but it’s pretty sketchy and flaky, since we anthropomorphise onto this creator something like an intentional intellect without any reason to do so – I wonder where we got that idea: made in our image. Where the heck in all of known cosmology to you get the idea that anything remotely like human sentience is possible or required in the unimaginable scope of universe creation? We are having trouble enough convincing ourselves that there can be other intelligences on some other planet, or that intelligence can exist in non-biological systems? Don’t you think it’s odd that it’s mainly theists that want to postulate some extra-universal intelligent creator that have a hard time imagining that intelligence is a flexible enough emergent phenomenon to exist in non-human things? Honestly, theism is so damned transparent only the faithful can’t see through it – no wonder it’s ridiculed as blind faith.

            Our choices for universes and stuff generally seem to be binary, when cut back to the essentials. Either there is some sense in which there is and always has been for all eternity (these limited linguistic terms are stretching our imagination in this metaphysical context) an absolute no shit taking nothingness, from out of which popped something. Or, there has always been various kinds of something or other, which one fine cosmological day got together for no better reason than feeling lonely and had a Big Bang of a party, got wasted, saw stars, … billions of years … then us. There is nothing in either the eternal kick ass nothingness, or in the eternal something or other that requires that a bit of that nothingness or that somethingness should be anything remotely like what religious believers would think of as a creator God. And despite the fact that this cosmos making something or nothing is totally inaccessible to us at the moment, the religious still insist on positing a creator God; oh, and that he is good (whatever that means); oh, and that he is remotely interested in us; oh, and he sent himself down here to save us, from himself, since he made us evil in the first place.

            Please! Just watch this to see how screwed up Christianity is. And, as a bonus, the end of the dialogue shows exactly what’s going with praxis – as currently discussed on another WEIT post. Oh, and while we’re at it, something from nothing and how this is tricky for God too. Religion really is a big joke. If there is a God (a raw non-specific theistic claim not a religious system), he played the joke on the religious. Here’s how that joke might play out.

            “The observations of many amazing dimensions of our cosmos lead me to an inductive conclusion that this creator was intelligent.”

            What observations? Can you be specific? Can you tell me what data you are using? Can you lay out your inductive argument in some structure so I can follow the steps? Or, by observations do you really mean imaginations?

            Jesus may have existed or not. It doesn’t matter, except that if it can be shown he didn’t then Christianity is really screwed. If he did exist it doesn’t make all the myths about him true. I’m pretty convinced that Rome exists as a city in Italy, but I’m sceptical about the Romulus and Remus myth. Get the point?

            “In my view, the empirical data to which I have alluded above…”

            Please, don’t allude. Give it. Be explicit. There’s too much alluding in theology. Let’s have some explicit evidence, for once. Go on, do it.

            “I mean primarily that nihilism is a supposedly objective absolute value judgement that absolutely no value judgements carry objective validity.”

            How do you suppose that from the definition? There’s nothing absolute about it. Your equivocation on the meaning of ‘objective’ doesn’t wash. Moral nihilism is very clearly evidence based. There is evidence that our morals come from biological and cultural sources, and zero evidence they come from anything else.

            “Can you see that you are making a claimed objective truth statement”

            This is where you equivocate on ‘objective’. You either explicitly associate it with a meaning of being absolute and ‘out there’, as you did earlier with ‘supposedly objective absolute value judgement'; or as in this case and as theists often do, assume ‘objective’ means ‘out there’. When really, ‘objective’ when applied to moral nihilism really means ‘rational’ – as in being objective, being fair, taking an unbiased view, weighing the evidence, etc. – all of which you are specifically not doing.

            So, yes I’m making a claim, and it is objective. But it is a claimed based on evidence for the case and no evidence against the case. It is not a simple assertion, as is yours. You both assert your deontology, without supporting it; and you even assert you have evidence, without providing it.

            “Biology or a merely physical brain may facilitate survival of our species but they are not designed to deliver truth.”

            I agree. The brain is not designed at all. It is particularly unimpressive at acquiring truth, or even having a solid understanding of what truth is – hence all the baloney philosophy trying to figure that out. Brains are far less impressive than you suppose. That’s why we need science to help us compensate for the flaws. All we can say about truth, other than the simplistic defined true/false states in binary logic, is that we take things to be true by the extent to which our rational understanding, our concepts and theories, are supported by evidence from the world, as best acquired by the methods of science. Sadly some people, mostly theists, but some philosophers too, make stuff up, believe it to be true, and hence think it really is true. They have only a very vague concept of being mistaken – “People can be mistaken about all sorts of things, except I can’t be mistaken about my theistic belief”. It is genuinely laughable.

            “… but on balance, I’m convinced that most, if not all of them, can be successfully addressed.”

            But you are also convinced about many theistic ideas. That you are convinced by your own beliefs isn’t that impressive. I would be more persuaded by your arguments, but mostly by your evidence. Your arguments so far have been flaky, to say the least. You evidence is absent. Address them.

            “The primary concern I’m trying to express is that when we humans judge that any action to be “morally wrong,” we normally mean that judgement to be objectively (deonotologically) valid, not merely an expression of our personal subjective moral code.”

            ‘We humans’? You mean some humans. I’m not doubting your conviction – you’ve already convinced me of that, that you believe. I’m contesting the content of your belief. I would say those humans are suffering from an illusion that they have access to some deontological data. Where is the data? Where is the evidence to show I’m mistaken? And, ‘objectively (deonotologically) valid’? Even if you had a valid argument it need not result in a true conclusion.

            • Al Hiebert
              Posted December 14, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

              In response to twistedbyknaves
              Posted December 14, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

              Agreed: Time may have a beginning and so may space, likely at the big bang. The question then is why did the big bang occur, which brought into existence time, space, & our cosmos. Was it by magic or spontaneous generations or did someone cause it. I postulate the latter, because I think magic & spontaneous generations to be imaginary/illusory/unscientific.

              • Posted December 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

                “Was it by magic or spontaneous generations or did someone cause it.”

                I note here that you suppose that spontaneous generation is magic, while someone causing it isn’t. Doesn’t magic require a magician? Isn’t the ‘God did it, but I don’t know how and I can’t provide evidence’ and appeal to a magician’s work?

              • abandonwoo
                Posted December 15, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

                Metaphysical speculation is hypothesis. Be careful never to conflate hypothesis with theory, an error not unlike confusing mere belief in something with actual knowledge of that thing. Hypothesis/belief may be comprised of some degree of truth, either because speculation is informed by valid inputs or simply through $hithou$e luck, but certainty about the amount of truth or validity requires the ability to falsify any such claims. Sans falsification, hypothesis/belief may never be proven valid and remains (at best) only uninformed opinion.

              • Posted December 14, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, Ron: you’ve lost me. There can be nothing before the beginning of time. I see neither the need nor the room for a creator.

              • Posted December 15, 2012 at 4:25 am | Permalink

                wistedbyknaves,

                You’ve lost me too. My response was to Al, about his labelling of natural spontaneous existence as magic, as opposed labelling his theological Creation as magic, since magic usually implies the work of a magician. But I do see a typo in my statement, which should read:

                Isn’t the [theist’s] ‘God did it, but I don’t know how and I can’t provide evidence’ an (not ‘and’) appeal to a magician’s work?

                But, to address your point about time:

                This is all mataphysical guesswork anyway. Can there be something that in any sense preceeds the beginging of a universe in which both space and time came into existence with the beginning of that universe? Who knows. But, post-alchemy it was thought that elements can’t transmute. Then it turns out they can – as occurs in the Sun. Stuff is stuff, but it seems it can change from one type of stuff to another type of stuff. All the physicists and cosmologists I’ve read claim to know, with any degree of confidence at all, only what happened a very short time after the Big Bang. Nobody has a clue about what happened before that, or even what it means, as you say, as this space and time come into being. But what I’ve not seen is any science that precludes one type of space-time stuff – say a pre-this-universe space-time of some quite different sort – resulting in this specific space and time stuff, so that this space-time was created out of some other space-time. There are speculative ideas about continuous time and big-bounces, multiple universes, etc., and some do include a more general view of time that goes beyond the beginning of this universe.

                This inability for us to say how this universe came about, for lack of any evidence and no generally agreed on theory, is why elsewhere I claim that the statement “You can’t get something from nothing” is not knowledge from metaphysics. It’s a statement that is metaphysical guesswork. But, being a metaphysical statement it is a statement about what we think reality is or might be, not simply some bogus philosophical possible worlds type analysis. And as such it has not been shown to be true and therefore is not known, is not knowledge.

                So, I agree with your “I see neither the need nor the room for a creator.”, but I agree because I don’t see any evidence of one or any need for one. But I see your “There can be nothing before the beginning of time” as a metaphysical speculation much like “You can’t get something from nothing”.

              • Posted December 16, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

                Al,

                I think the metaphysical speculation is that there was a beginning of time. If this is true, then there is no earlier time for a creator to occupy. There is no creation: just initial conditions.

    • Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      What a shameful example of woolly thinking!

      That’s the most crude and innacurate description of the Milgram experiment I’ve ever seen. Since when has the obesity of the participant been a factor? (It hasn’t). And the switch doesn’t simply kill, it administers a shock which is steadily ramped up by turning a dial, which you completely fail to mention. Also, the trolley problem does not have a man in a white coat telling the subject what to do, the subject is given a setup and left to figure out how they will act for themselves – so the Milgram experiment tests for how people respond to authority, but the trolley problem does not. They are not the same, not even crudely, they don’t even test for the same thing.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        You misunderstand me.

        Yes, of course. The Milgram experiment was designed to see how far somebody would go in obeying an authority figure.

        But, whatever the intention behind the trolley car experiments, by their very nature, they cannot possibly be anything but crude repeats of the Milgram experiment.

        The “researcher” tells you that there’s a runaway trolley on the tracks, headed towards a schoolbus stalled across the tracks. You just happen to be standing next to a switch. If you flip it, it’ll divert the trolley to a side track where it’ll kill a fat man working on some repairs. And then the man in the white lab coat tells you that you either have to flip the switch or do nothing — but, either way, the man in the white lab coat is authoritatively telling you to kill somebody, and, almost without fail, the subjects comply and accordingly “kill” one of the victims.

        That is the Milgram experiment, just with inconsequential modifications to the story used to sell it to the experimental subjects. You could change it to Nazis telling a man he must choose between his wife and his children, and it’d still be the exact same experiment.

        If you’re still unsure, consider the perspective that a real ethicist would be taking in such a situation. Rather than worry about which switch to flip, she’d be working to try to figure out what led to such amazingly unsafe working conditions that would have bystanders and workers put in harm’s way with defective safety equipment on the trolley and a random untrained bystander granted access to the switch. The breadth and depth of the incompetence and malfeasance exhibited is truly of epic proportions. The whole thing would result in criminal prosecution up and down the chain, and you’d never hear the end of the scandal.

        In other words, by the time you’re put in a position where you would have to decide to flip the switch, our entire society, including all of its most vital ethical safeguards, has already been eroded beyond all comprehension. You might as well pretend that you can learn something about the safety of a new car model by “testing” it by ripping out the air bag, cutting the brake lines, putting a brick on the accelerator, getting a ten-year-old drunk, and handing him the keys.

        Whatever you may think you’re learning from such experiments, you’re missing the most fundamental lesson to be learned: that they’re utterly idiotic and beyond pointless.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • BillyJoe
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          These experiments are interesting in that they demonstrate how our minds work. For example, they tell us that we are more willing to kill someone by throwing a switch than to kill someone by throwing him over a railing in front of a train. But they do not otherwise have any real practical application.

          • Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

            Once again, we’ve already learned all we need to know about such things from the original Milgram experiments (and similar experiments performed in that era, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment).

            When it comes down to it, they’re really only useful if you’re a sadistic fuck trying to satisfy your own Nazi SS officer fantasies. Which only serves to eliminate what little residual respect I might have had for philosophers, frankly.

            Again, the comparison between philosophers philosophizing about ethics and real ethicists doing hard research is so stark it’s not even funny. The gulf between the two is at least as large as that between physicians and homeopaths, if not bigger.

            b&

            • Gary W
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

              Once again, we’ve already learned all we need to know about such things from the original Milgram experiments (and similar experiments performed in that era, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment).

              No we didn’t. The trolley experiments explore different aspects of moral beliefs and reasoning than those earlier experiments, including the role of action vs. inaction in resolving moral dilemmas. The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments were primarily about the effect of authority on moral behavior.

          • Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

            I think in the rest of the thread, Ben is simply mistaken about the nature of the experiments. The Milgram experiments were physical experiments (albeit not what they seemed to be, but that was the point) of psychologists. The trolley experiments are thought-experiments of philosophers in which no harm is done.

            If I remember rightly, the trolley experiments show that we are more willing to kill more people by doing nothing than fewer people by throwing a switch – that we are irrational (if killing a few people is less unethical than killing more people) about the ethics of action vs inaction. This is a useful outcome of a thought-experiment in which no-one gets hurt, whereas people who thought they were hurting people in Milgram experiments were traumatised. That was my understanding of the objection to them.

    • Tulse
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      You’re conflating normativity with description. The Milgram experiment (like all such empirical studies) shows what people actually do, but can’t tell us what they should do. The reason the Milgram studies are so disturbing is because they violate our sense of how a person should act, and their results don’t presumably change that view.

      Philosophy purports to provide a rational analysis of the normative, of how we should act. It uses thought experiments to uncover our moral intuitions, and to indicate when those intuitions may be inconsistent, or fight against other principles that we hold. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable endeavor.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        It uses thought experiments to uncover our moral intuitions, and to indicate when those intuitions may be inconsistent, or fight against other principles that we hold.

        I don’t argue that that’s what philosophers think they’re doing with their studies.

        But it’s transparently obvious that, in practice, they’re doing no such thing.

        Ask yourself: if, instead of the philosophy department doing the trolley experiments it were the psychology department, do you think Milgram’s ghost would let them get past the ethics review board?

        I don’t. If it did, I’d be very upset.

        b&

        • Tulse
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure I follow, Ben — care to unpack that?

          • Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            The basic trolley study goes like this.

            The “researcher” solicits “subjects.” A subject shows up, is greeted by the researcher, and the researcher tells the subject what he wants done. The researcher then tells the subject that there is a trolley about to ram a schoolbus stuck on the tracks, but that the subject can press a button and send the trolley to kill a fat man working on a side spur. The researcher then tells the subject that the subject is now responsible for, and must, decide what to do. And, of course, the researcher remains there to observe and record the responses.

            The classic Milgram experiment was only insignificantly different. The subjects were told that they had to administer shocks to their victims in order to “help” them learn the proper answer, and they only had the single victim. And, of course, the simulation was more realistic, complete with recorded screams from the victim.

            But that’s all just window dressing, and you could have constructed any number of set-ups to get to the subjects to think that doing something horrific to somebody else was reasonable.

            All that’s going on, in either case, is an authority figure is telling somebody to do something horrific, and, as Milgram so viscerally demonstrated, almost everybody put in such a circumstance will unhappily do as the authority figure commands.

            That the philosophers are ignorant of Milgram is of no consequence. Nazi stormtroopers who predated Milgram were equally ignorant, but I’m sure we would agree that they were doing the same thing. Similarly, that the philosophers aren’t as gruesomely realistic as Milgram’s is equally inconsequential.

            And, again, I’ll note the completely unrealistic nature of the trolley experiments. There isn’t even a vaguely remotely plausible scenario by which such a chain of events might carry itself out…and, in cases where anything like that happens, it’s instantly clear that the blame lies not with the person who did or didn’t flip the switch but in the multiple failures that permitted such a circumstance to arise in the first place.

            Just think: there’s the runaway train, which should never happen. There’s the schoolbus stalled on the tracks, which should never happen. There’s the worker doing his job somewhere that puts him at undue risk from a runaway train, and the lack of emergency procedures to alert him in time to get clear of the tracks. There’s the unattended (or broken?) switch, which should have a trained operator monitoring it. And there’s the lack of security that places the innocent bystander in the midst of all this chaos…and, with all this epic and criminal incompetence running rampant everywhere, the philosopher has the gall to try to get his subject feel guilty about taking responsibility for innocent deaths that the subject isn’t even vaguely remotely responsible for? Give me a break.

            Does that help?

            b&

            • Gary W
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

              The classic Milgram experiment was only insignificantly different.

              The trolley experiment tests whether the subject is willing to perform an act that will cause harm in order to prevent a greater harm. The Milgram experiment tests whether the subject is willing to inflict harm on the instructions of an authority figure. Why you think this difference is “insignificant” I have no idea. The two experiments are testing two completely different aspects of moral thinking and behavior.

              • Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

                Spectacularly missing the point as usual, Gary.

                Milgram told people to press a button to kill somebody. People pressed the button.

                Philosophers tell people to press a button to kill somebody, but they first have to pick which person they’re going to kill. People press the button.

                Milgram demonstrated that people will press a button to kill a person when an authority figure tells them to do so. It was a shocking discovery at the time.

                Philosophers have demonstrated that people will still press a button to kill a person even when given a choice of which person the button will kill. The only thing shocking about the trolley experiments is that philosophers are permitted to perform them.

                Why we should give a damn whether a gas chamber operator would choose to kill the Gypsies before killing the Jews is utterly beyond me.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

                You go on and on but say nothing that is relevant to the issue at hand.

                The trolley experiment tests whether a subject is willing to cause harm in order to prevent a greater harm.

                The Milgram experiment tests whether a subject is willing to cause harm on the instructions of an authority figure.

                You haven’t even tried to make an argument for your claim that the difference between these two experiments is “insignificant.”

              • Tulse
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

                Ben, you’ve misunderstood the purpose of the trolley studies, which is to explore the nature of human reasoning about ethics. In the various scenarios, individuals often show a preference to not cause harm through action, even if their inaction causes greater harm. In other words, in utilitarian terms, these studies show people act irrationally. If you want a real-world example of this, many anti-vax parents would rather not inject their child with a vaccine that carries an extremely tiny risk, but instead passively expose their children to far greater risk of disease. Understanding how people reason about ethics, and especially how our reasoning doesn’t conform to utilitarianism, is hugely important to domains such as public policy, social marketing of health messaging, economics and social justice, etc. etc. etc.

                I really don’t understand your violent objection to these studies, which it seems to me are one of the most practical, applied, real-world, empirical examples of philosophy. (That said, the studies themselves, when they actually collect data from respondents, seem far more like psychology studies than philosophy.)

              • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                Hmm… I think that’s one of the points Ben makes , that when philosophy becomes more like psychology (or another science or science-y discipline), it’s no longer meaningful to talk of it as “philosophy” … 

                Really, rather than making a case for the weakness of philosophy as others recognise it, it seems that Ben makes a (philosophical?!) argument that redefines all un-weak philosophy as science! (Wittgenstein: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”)

                /@

              • Gary W
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

                Ant,

                We can classify the trolley experiment as an experiment in psychology rather than as an experiment in philosophy, if you prefer. It makes no difference to the point. Why is the trolley experiment unethical? And why is it only “insignificantly” different from the Milgram experiment? Those are the claims Ben Goren has made that are disputed (by at least 4 different commenters now, by my count — me, Tulse, Shuggy and InvincibleIronyMan).

              • Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                And why is it only “insignificantly” different from the Milgram experiment?

                You still don’t get it, even after I explained what you’re supposed to do in such situations?

                Let me try simplifying it.

                In the Milgram experiment, the proper course of action is to not do as the authority figure is demanding you do, and to instead contact the police to put a stop to the criminal action you’re being encouraged to participate in.

                If you encounter the trolley experiment situation in the real world, the proper course of action is to keep your fucking hands off the switch, and to instead call 911 or otherwise get a qualified professional to handle the situation.

                If a philosopher asks you to envision a thought experiment in which you imagine encountering the trolley situation, your response shouldn’t be to agree to fuck with the goddamned switch, but to tell him that you’d be screaming for help and assisting with the investigation in the aftermath. If the philosopher then continues the Milgram-esque routine of insisting that you must fuck the switch, you should tell him to shove it and that you hope that he never goes near a railway or any other form of heavy equipment.

                Any other response, including fantasizing about how many fat men you could get away with killing, and you’re only flipping Milgram’s switch at the insistence of a psychotic philosopher performing an unethical psychological experiment he is radically unqualified to design, perform, or interpret.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                As usual, you long, blathering response is a complete nonsequitur that fails to address the points in dispute. I did not ask you, and am not interested in, what you believe about how the subject “should” respond in each experiment. I asked you why you think the difference between the two experiments is “insignificant.” And I asked you why you think the trolley experiment is “unethical.” This is about the fifth time you’ve been asked. Do you have answers to these questions or don’t you?

              • Posted December 9, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                @ Gary W, re your reply to me.

                I was not defending Ben; I was commenting on Tulse’s “seem far more like psychology studies than philosophy”.

                Quite frankly, it seems to me that Ben is wilfully obfuscating the issue by pretending that the “trolley switch” is a real-world situation. It could be restated in a “primitive” context where you can change the path of a boulder tolling down a hill, in which case there is no 911 to call, no qualified professionals to deal with the situation, &c., &c.

                /@

              • Posted December 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                I asked you why you think the difference between the two experiments is “insignificant.”

                Once more unto the breach.

                Milgram ordered his subjects to perform a criminally violent action (electrocuting an actor posing as another test subject), insisting that no other action was permissible / possible, specifically directing the subject’s actions away from the proper response (calling the police), and he observed how long it took for his subjects to refuse to comply.

                Philosophers order their subjects to (imagine to) perform a criminally violent action (unauthorized and unqualified interference with critical safety equipment in a crisis situation), insisting that no other action is permissible / possible, specifically directing the subject’s actions away from the proper response (getting qualified personnel to the scene)…and then the philosophers pretend that they’re gleaning profound insights into human psychology while instead demonstrating spectacularly incompetent ignorance of some of the most important findings to date in psychology.

                The only difference of substance is that Milgram staged the situation while philosophers tell their subjects to imagine the whole thing. And Milgram was qualified to understand what he was doing, while the philosophers are utterly clueless.

                If you still don’t get it after this, I’ll simply repeat my earlier plea:

                Stay the fuck away from dangerous equipment, because you’re exactly the type of idiot who’d fall for somebody telling you, as a prank, that you need to go open that red-handled valve over there.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                Philosophers order their subjects to (imagine to) perform a criminally violent action (unauthorized and unqualified interference with critical safety equipment in a crisis situation), insisting that no other action is permissible / possible, specifically directing the subject’s actions away from the proper response (getting qualified personnel to the scene)

                Assuming that by “philosophers” you mean the people conducting the trolley experiment, you are yet again completely misrepresenting the experiment. They didn’t “order” the subjects to do anything. They presented the subjects with the scenario and asked them whether they would choose to divert the trolley or not. This is completely different from the Milgram experiment, in which the subject was instructed to act in a way that would cause harm. This has been explained to you over and over again, by multiple commenters. You simply refuse to admit your errors, no matter how many times and how many people explain them to you.

        • Posted December 9, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

          But nobody is *doing* the trolley experiments! There is no “instead”! Why would an ethical review board care about about an “experiment” that exists only in the imagination?

          What you say is obvious is clearly only “obvious” to one person – namely you. You are not building a coherent argument here, probably because you have already decided your conclusion and are hamfistedly trying to fit your argument to it, blithely dismissing any glaring facts which don’t fit your theory.

          What a fucking disgraceful mockery of an argument.

  5. Larry
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Would like to email you for a copy of the Atkins essay but can’t seem to find any email address for you (other than one labeled for media inquiries only). To where should I send the request?

    • Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:37 am | Permalink

      Google Jerry’s name and university of chicago (or uchicago)

  6. Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Prof, would you be kind as to email the pdf by Atkins. Thanks
    What are these other ways of knowing and specifically I don’t know whether philosophy has answered any of the questions it is claimed to answer.

    • Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      You could just Google “jerry coyne email address” and see what happens.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        Thanks, I have never thought of that.

  7. Brygida Berse
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I notice a common motif in the writings of religious accommodationists and critics of “scientism”, one which seems to be deeply personal, namely the fear of appearing shallow or arrogant. By stating that “there is more out there than meets the eye” (specifics not required) they are portraying themselves as deep and sophisticated thinkers.

    There may be aspects of the greater Universe that the human brain, having evolved in one small corner of it, will never be able to comprehend. But that doesn’t mean that philosophy (also a product of the evolved brain) has the answers. 

  8. Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    There’s a lot here. I hope you’ll indulge me with a longish comment; I’ll keep further responses sparing and shorter. More here.

    I. To refute scientism, one doesn’t need questions that other fields positively have answered; one only needs questions that science itself cannot answer, but that as far as we know, there can be answers to. Now notice that science deals with three types of facts:

    Contingent facts: the fact obtains, but could possibly not have obtained.
    Descriptive facts: the fact is about how things actually are or how people actually behave, not how things should be or how people should behave.
    Empirical facts: the fact is discovered via perception, the five senses, scientific instruments, and other forms of observation.

    Let’s call these ‘CDE’ facts. To see that science is limited to CDE facts, notice that science’s limitation to E-facts entails its limitation to C-facts and D-facts. So any answer that is not a CDE fact is an answer something other than science has provided.

    II. To see that scientism is self-defeating, consider these claims:

    (E1) Beliefs formed on the basis of empirical observation are objectively likely to be true.
    (E2) Beliefs formed on the basis of empirical observation are at least prima facie justified.

    Now, I challenge any scientismist or empiricist to give me a valid deductive argument with (E1) or (E2) as the conclusion and premises that are justified only empirically. (Hint: Circular arguments are invalid.) (N.b.: (E1) and (E2) are precisely answers that philosophy has provided to important questions.)

    III. Finally, to respond to a couple of points:

    … those answers are subjective, not universally agreed on, and don’t involve “truth” in the same way scientists conceive it.

    The first and third charges are controversial philosophical claims, here merely asserted without any argument or evidence. The second is obviously irrelevant to whether a claim is true.

    [Hughes claims that] scientism is a superstition, a faith akin to religious belief.

    If scientism is not a superstition or faith, then scientismists can meet the challenge I outlined above.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Your entire argument can be summed up like this:

      I am in ur internetz, missing ur points.

      Please provide a list of these scary “scientismists” (that’s not even a word, by the way) of which you speak.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Hi Grania,

        Let’s say that scientism is just what philosophers call ‘radical empiricism': the only epistemic justification that exists is ultimately from observation or the five senses. If so, then there are plenty of scientismists, e.g. Van Quine, Hilary Kornblith, and Michael Devitt. I imagine many scientists are that way too. But if you don’t think they exist, I’m glad to hear it.

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      To refute scientism, one doesn’t need questions that other fields positively have answered; one only needs questions that science itself cannot answer, but that as far as we know, there can be answers to.”

      Please provide examples of such questions, and how you know there can be answers to them.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Hi abrotherofhoodman,

        I thought I did in my original comment. Any question with an answer that’s not a CDE-fact qualifies as a question science can’t answer. Surely we can think of lots of these. For example:

        (Q1)Is it possible now for earth to exist five minutes from now?
        (Q2) Is it wrong to ban the teaching of evolution in schools?
        (Q3) Is Creationism epistemically irrational?
        (Q4) Do numbers exist?

        (The answers to these questions are not CDE-facts. If you think we are justified in accepting answers to any of them, then you’re not a scientismist.)

        In addition, as I said,

        (E1) Beliefs formed on the basis of empirical observation are objectively likely to be true.
        (E2) Beliefs formed on the basis of empirical observation are at least prima facie justified.

        are both answers to questions that science can’t answer, since the only answers it might give would be circular at best.

        • Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          Q1) Why can’t scientific inquiry answer this? The question is if it’s possible for the Earth to exist 5 min from now. Let’s consult the laws of physics and find out. Whether or not the Earth will in fact exist 5 min from now is probably what you were after, but philosophy is as impotent there as science.

          Q2) This question has no objective answer independent of human goals. The answer is therefore not “truth” in the rigorous sense.

          Q3) Again, why is science not applicable here? Let’s look Arthur evidence for creationism. Does it outweigh the evidence against creationism? When we find out, we can make our conclusion based on the ratio of evidence for to evidence against.

          Q4) Same problem as Q1. The concept of numbers manifestly exists. We can demonstrate this empirically: look around! Do numbers physically exist? Well, can philosophy provide a conclusive answer?

          • Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

            Arthur = at the

          • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

            Hi musical beef,

            (Q1) The laws of physics themselves don’t state explicitly that earth might exist five minutes from now. You might perform an induction to argue that earth can possibly exist five minutes from now, but there’s no way to support induction non-circularly from a purely empirical position, since no one empirically observes the future.

            (Q2) You make a controversial philosophical claim here and provide no evidence for it, nor indeed any explanation of how science could ever provide any evidence for it.

            (Q3) I agree that there’s plenty of scientific evidence for evolution. What I want is an empirical observation of the irrationality of believing in Creationism. Is irrationality a field that certain beliefs give off, and can we discover an ‘irrationality boson’?

            (Q4) I’m not asking about whether the concept of numbers exists. I’m asking whether numbers, themselves, exist. They might not physically exist either; it doesn’t make sense to ask what elements the number 3 is made of. Philosophy, however, does tell us that numbers exist. (There are a few arguments. Some say the existence of numbers is the best explanation for the success of mathematics. Others say that numbers seem to exist, and seemings are at least prima facie justification. Others say that the position that numbers don’t exist is self-defeating, since it seems to say that zero numbers exist. Others say that ‘1+1=2′ is obviously true, more obviously true than any argument against numbers, but ‘1+1=2′ entails that numbers exist. Etc.)

            • Tulse
              Posted December 9, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              there’s no way to support induction non-circularly from a purely empirical position, since no one empirically observes the future.

              The Problem of Induction is indeed a problem, but it’s a problem for all of reasoning generally, and not just empiricism. After all, how do you know the laws of logic will be the same tomorrow as today? That the nature of math isn’t subject to time-sensitive changes, such that next Thursday triangles will no longer have three sides? You may argue that these things are true “by definition”, but how do you know that this is the case?

              The Problem of Induction is simply part of the broad problem of certainty in knowledge of any sort. As such, it is not a sniper bullet against empiricism, but a hand grenade dropped in amongst all of reason.

              • Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

                Hi Tulse,

                We know that the laws of logic will continue to hold because we are at least prima facie justified in trusting obviousness or self-evidence. At least, that’s the rationalist’s answer, which the empiricist explicitly repudiates. We can argue about the evidential value of obviousness–and it would probably take us farther afield than Jerry wants in this comments section–but at least the rationalist has not rejected the only source of knowledge that could solve the Problem of Induction.

                The Problem of Induction has little to do with certainty. According to the Problem, past observations provide zero evidence of future situations, not merely insufficient evidence.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

              The usual irrelevant list of “science problems” that aren’t.

              Do we really have to waste time on this? We all know that if a single such well based problem would exist physicalism would never have been proposed!

              Q1. A philosophical question, irrelevant here.

              You claim that induction is a science method to arbitrate fact. It isn’t, we use testing. Induction is a good method to propose observations and hypotheses, but that is not what we discuss.

              We know from science that the Earth will physically exist in 5 or 10 minutes from now FWIW. _Testable_ physics guarantee this beyond reasonable doubt, the orbit is physically continued. But philosophical “existence” is defined differently.

              Q2. A social question, irrelevant here.

              Q3. A philosophical question, irrelevant here.

              Q4. A mathematical question, irrelevant here.

              We know from science that numbers have no physical existence FWIW. _Testable_ physics guarantee this beyond reasonable doubt, no physical observation of “numbers” can be done. But mathematical “existence” is defined differently.

              My prognosis is that Q1-4 failure will bring about another set of irrelevant questions. It most always does.

              • socrateseg
                Posted February 8, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                Torbjörn,

                Your dismissiveness is both disturbing and confusing given the context of this discussion, as raised in the original post and in the immediate response raised by Tom UA. And arguably, completely misses his point; indeed, if you did think so dismissively of it, you’ve wasted your own time in responding at all.

                As for your response, you are directed to the following two posts as responses (though it seems that under your own beliefs, we may just be talking past each other, as you don’t grant even propositionally what’s being articulated and so aren’t interested in this as a counterexample of the sort that revises potentially incorrect thinking/reasoning/belief):

                http://www.unnaturalatheism.org/2012/09/the-realms-of-philosophy-and-science.html

                http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2012/09/what-is-left-for-philosophy-to-do.html

              • Posted February 8, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

                Your links perfectly demonstrate why philosophy is bullshit.

                How does science know that which it knows? Because it independently verifies its hypotheses with empirical observations of reality.

                How does philosophy know that which it knows? It doesn’t; it merely insists that an answer is required and adopts the most philosophically philosophical one that tickles the philosopher’s personal philosophy.

                That which philosophers “discover” that we know to be true we know are true because we have objective evidence to support the conclusions…but that still leaves huge swaths of philosophy that philosophers insist must be true, but to which we either don’t know the answer at all or know it to be something entirely different.

                Add to that the plain observations of the uselessness of philosophy. For millennia, philosophers have been obsessed with “Big Questions,” such as the origins of Life, the Universe, and Everything as well as the nature of matter. And we’ve had a never-ending stream of answers from philosophers — all of which we now know to be pure bullshit. Why do we know they’re bullshit? Because actual scientists thought up and then verified the actual answers, with absolutely no help whatsoever from the philosophers.

                So, sorry if being dismissed disturbs you, but philosophy is every bit as deserving of dismissal as its indistinguishably-close cousin, philosophy. Lots of people stringing lots of impressive-sounding words together, all without even pretending to bother to lift a finger to see if what they’re writing and saying has any bearing on reality whatsoever.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 8, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                “…philosophy is every bit as deserving of dismissal as its indistinguishably-close cousin, philosophy.”

                Don’t go out on a limb Ben…

              • Posted February 8, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                Argh!

                “…as its close cousin, theology!

                Stupid brain.

                b&

    • Gary W
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      (E1) Beliefs formed on the basis of empirical observation are objectively likely to be true.
      (E2) Beliefs formed on the basis of empirical observation are at least prima facie justified.

      Now, I challenge any scientismist or empiricist to give me a valid deductive argument with (E1) or (E2) as the conclusion and premises that are justified only empirically.

      All valid claims of knowledge ultimately rest on premises that are taken to be self-evidently true through reason. This is part of science. You’re not refuting scientism, you’re just arguing over what counts as science.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        Hi Gary W,

        This is an interesting response.

        I agree that reason and self-evidence do provide epistemic justification. I don’t know whether many of the people here would be willing to commit to that wholeheartedly, though. Some of them think the only kind of real evidence that exists is empirical.

        Maybe you would have a similar worry. Consider the claim that torturing someone for fun is objectively (mind-independently) morally wrong. That seems self-evident to me. Do you agree that the self-evidence of that claim justifies me in believing it? And do you think the process I just went through to discover that truth counts as “science”?

        • Old Rasputin
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Well, anybody who thinks about it for more than two seconds surely must conclude that empirical evidence, or any sort of justification for any truth claim, must boil down to assumptions about epistemology. I don’t think you’ll find very many here (or anywhere else) unwilling to concede this point.

          However if someone makes a claim concerning “objective morality” like yours above, I can only conclude that the speaker either does not understand their own words, or (more likely) we are defining those words differently (which amounts to the same thing). To me it sounds like someone saying, “Consider the claim that all bachelors are married. That seems self-evident to me. Do you agree that the self-evidence of that claim justifies me in believing it?” I’m not sure what (useful) definition or “morality” allows it to exist independently from a mind.

          Another way to make the same point: I believe that remote candles to describe in boots. This is self-evident to me. Am I justified in this belief?

          • Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

            Hi Old Rasputin,

            I agree that knowledge requires certain assumptions about epistemology. My worry, and the rationalist’s worry in general, is that empiricism can never justify such assumptions.

            Maybe I should elaborate a bit on mind-independence or objectivity. Metaethicists mean something like this: Even if everyone thought that torturing children was permissible, it would still be morally wrong. Now, this seems more overall plausible to me than the premises of any argument against objective morality.

            In any case, you might define those words differently, but now that I’ve specified my definition, anyone who agrees that the wrongness of torturing children isn’t just an opinion will have a good reason to reject scientism or empiricism.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

              Metaethicists mean something like this: Even if everyone thought that torturing children was permissible, it would still be morally wrong. Now, this seems more overall plausible to me than the premises of any argument against objective morality.

              Why? What reason is there to believe that “even if everyone thought that torturing children was permissible, it would still be morally wrong?” Why should we believe that morality is a matter of objective fact rather than preference? What are these premises that you don’t find plausible of any argument against objective morality?

        • Gary W
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          Maybe you would have a similar worry. Consider the claim that torturing someone for fun is objectively (mind-independently) morally wrong. That seems self-evident to me. Do you agree that the self-evidence of that claim justifies me in believing it? And do you think the process I just went through to discover that truth counts as “science”?

          No, I think moral beliefs, like aesthetic beliefs, are a matter of preference. They’re not propositions that are either true or false; they’re a matter of subjective opinion. I am curious as to why you think the moral belief you describe about torture is a matter of truth rather than just a very strong preference on your part.

          • Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

            Hi Gary W.,

            I don’t know what argument anyone could give against (or for) the existence of objective ethical truths that didn’t depend on epistemological assumptions that scientismists and empiricists explicitly reject, such as assumptions about our ability to discover normative or other a priori truths. In addition, I don’t know what argument anyone could give against the existence of objective ethical truths that would have premises more overall plausible than the claim that suffering is (generally) just bad, no matter what anyone thinks about it. (Does anyone know of such an argument?)

            As for self-evidence, it could be that as a matter of contingent psychological fact, we come to believe many self-evident beliefs because of our experiences. But surely (right?) we wouldn’t have to go out into the world and make an empirical study to learn that necessarily, 1 is not equal to 0. We would know that just by thinking about it.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

              I don’t know what argument anyone could give against (or for) the existence of objective ethical truths that didn’t depend on epistemological assumptions that scientismists and empiricists explicitly reject, such as assumptions about our ability to discover normative or other a priori truths. In addition, I don’t know what argument anyone could give against the existence of objective ethical truths that would have premises more overall plausible than the claim that suffering is (generally) just bad, no matter what anyone thinks about it. (Does anyone know of such an argument?)

              So do you think “scientismists and empiricists” are justified in rejecting those epistemological assumptions underlying claims of objective moral truths, or not? If you do, then we agree. If you don’t, please explain why you think the assumptions should be accepted.

              As for self-evidence, it could be that as a matter of contingent psychological fact, we come to believe many self-evident beliefs because of our experiences. But surely (right?) we wouldn’t have to go out into the world and make an empirical study to learn that necessarily, 1 is not equal to 0. We would know that just by thinking about it.

              My point is that our ability to “know it just by thinking about it” may rest on our ability to perceive the world through our senses. For example, our ability to comprehend that different abstract things are not the same abstract thing (e.g., 1 is not 0) may rest on our sense perception that different material things are not the same material thing (e.g. 1 rock is not 2 rocks) In that sense, even reason may be empirical.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          I agree that reason and self-evidence do provide epistemic justification. I don’t know whether many of the people here would be willing to commit to that wholeheartedly, though. Some of them think the only kind of real evidence that exists is empirical.

          They may be empirical in that we hold them only by virtue of our ability to make observations. I’m not sure there is any axiom that we believe to be true independently of our ability to experience the world through our senses. If we had no senses, if we were just a brain-in-a-vat with no sensory perception, would even fundamental logical axioms like the law of non-contradiction be self-evidently true to us? I don’t think anyone knows.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      What has this to do with physicalism (aka “scientism”)?

      First, your “CDE facts” are a distinction without difference. Observation and theories are founded on and describes empirical facts.

      And yes, that is a circularity that science builds on. The well tested theory is perfectly circular when it it is fully tested, and needs more observation and theory to break out of that.

      Second, any sense of truth or belief or justification system can’t capture empirical facts. They can exist in a constant flux of dependencies, being undecided, reversed et cetera all the time. And they, observations and theories, are defined by their constraint and by the process of testing.

      Third, the whole of your argument is based on the idea that science doesn’t work and that you can reverse the burden of evidence. But it is observed that it does, so there is no burden.

      You, as Hughes, have to provide questions that are a priori selected (presumably by some theological mechanism) to be unanswerable.

      Physicalism is, like atheism, an observation.

      Science works as observed above which is why science is done in the first place. Call that “science”.

      Nothing else does as witnessed by your’s, Hughes’s et cetera continuing failure to provide alternative knowledge. The observation of the disappeared gap, that we now know the laws underlying everyday physics completely, is the basis for “physicalism”.

      Atheism is, in this sense, a corollary to physicalism.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        I forgot. The “circular arguments are invalid” idea is also an example of a system that can’t capture empirical facts (as I showed by demonstration).

        • Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          You reminded me of Neurath’s coherentism: “We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.”

          /@

  9. Ivan Kraljevic
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Please send me the PDF of Atkins’ essay Thank you very much

    PS I’m enjoying your posts on “Why Evoution is True” very much, keep ‘em coming :)

  10. JimV
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    My take is that there is no “truth” (even the evidence of our senses and our memories and our reasoning can be wrong), only justified opinions. It follows that the scientific way of obtaining knowledge is the best way (whether applied to chemistry, history, or a shopping list) since it does the most to produce justification.

    There is no need to provide the sort of philosophical “proof” demanded by the previous commenter; the justification of science is not by proof but by evidence (the same as in a legal trial); and the evidence that science works is all around us (especially those of us who are typing comments on computers to be displayed on the internet).

    There are of course questions that science can not currently answer (in the sense of providing a well-justified opinion) and there will always be such questions. That is irrelevant since as our host says, if scientific thinking can’t answer them neither can anything else.

  11. Alex Shuffell
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard critiques like this many times before, always from pseudo-intellectuals like Dinesh D’Souza. This is not a rhetorical question: Have they ever proposed an alternative way of knowing?

  12. Simon Spiegal
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Some questions philosophy has answered:

    Q: Is scientism false? A: Yes – eg, reading the newspaper can provide knowledge of, amongst other things, football scores.

    Q: Is scientism self-refuting? A: Yes – because the claim that only science provides knowledge is not a scientific claim and thus, if true, would by its own truth make it false.

    These seem to be two of the most pertinent here, but there are many, many others.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Q: Is scientism false? A: Yes – eg, reading the newspaper can provide knowledge of, amongst other things, football scores.

      Acquiring knowledge from reading the newspaper is not science in the formal sense of the word, but it relies on the same basic method as formal science — observation and reasoning. You haven’t identified a different method of producing knowledge; you’ve just given an example of the use of the scientific method in an informal context.

      Q: Is scientism self-refuting? A: Yes – because the claim that only science provides knowledge is not a scientific claim and thus, if true, would by its own truth make it false.

      If science is understood to include reasoning, then the claim that only science provides knowledge is a scientific claim, and hence your argument is invalid. If you insist on restricting the word “science” to empirical investigation, then we may define “scientism” as the proposition that science and reason are the only ways of producing knowledge.

      • Simon Spiegal
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        Not at all, science relies on the same basic knowledge gathering method that predated it by millennia. That is, observation and reasoning came first and science cannot simply help itself to those ancient methods and then proclaim them part of itself, and itself alone, and thus make them derivatives.

        At best, then, one might say that science is a rarefied branch of a much larger reliable means of gaining knowledge, but it is certainly not science to ask a shopkeeper how much a can of Coke costs. Thus there is a significant way of gaining huge amounts of knowledge that is not, on any reasonable definition, science.

        As for reason, reason may be a part of science, but identifying the self refuting status of scientism is an example of he application of pure reason – no observation of any kind was required. And that is most definitely philosophy.

        And, if you want to play that game, we can just identify science as a branch of philosophy and claim that it is philosophy, not science, that provides knowledge. That is, we take the pure reason example, plus everything science has to offer, call the whole lot philosophy, and pronounce philosophy king of the hill. (Now that you mention it…)

        • Tulse
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          No one, not even the most radical “scietismist”, would say that empirical observations and their related inductions only count if done by guys in white lab coats. You are arguing a ridiculously narrow position, one that misses the forest for the trees.

          Put another way, the actual claim in contention is that there are truths about the universe that can be validated by means other than observation and rational inductions/deductions about such observations.

          • Simon Spiegal
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            And I gave two such examples in my first post. That scientism is false, and that scientism is self-refuting.

            • Tulse
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

              My w

            • Tulse
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

              My point was precisely in response to your first example. Sports scores in the paper count as “knowledge” only inasmuch as they are empirical observations that we have rational reasons to trust — they are not examples of “other ways of knowing”.

              • Simon Spiegal
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                OK, let’s just take the self-refuting answer. There’s one – no observation required.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

          Not at all, science relies on the same basic knowledge gathering method that predated it by millennia. That is, observation and reasoning came first and science cannot simply help itself to those ancient methods and then proclaim them part of itself, and itself alone, and thus make them derivatives.

          Of course science can “help itself” to them. “Science” is the word we use to refer to the formal application of observation and reasoning (we can add “experimentation” also) to acquire knowledge. But you should recognize that acquiring knowledge by reading the newspaper is simply an informal application of the same method. You’re not making any substantive point, you’re just quibbling over terms. And if you insist that knowledge produced through reason alone is not science, then we can define “scientism” to include reason as well as science. I presume the reason Richard Dawkins named his foundation the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science was to try and avoid these silly semantic quibbles.

          • Simon Spiegal
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            At least he got the words in the right order.

    • jose
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I think this is the “plumbing-is-science” argument that has shown up from time to time on the blog.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        1. There’s nothing wrong with that argument; even Steve Gould argued that plumbing uses the principles of science when finding a leak.

        2. Which “blog” are you talking about? Must be some other site.

        • jose
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          1. No, no. Just trying to frame it within something previously discussed, wasn’t judging it in any way. Sorry if it came across as negative, I don’t have an opinion really.

          2. Oops! ^_^

    • Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Simon Spiegal,

      Quite right. I’d like to expand on your second point a bit.

      Here are two claims that scientism (or maybe just radical empiricism) seems to decompose into:

      Necessity thesis: empirical observation is necessary for epistemic justification.

      Sufficiency thesis: empirical observation is sufficient for epistemic justification.

      Both of these theses are obviously very problematic.

      The necessity thesis is self-defeating, as you point out, since the thesis, itself, is not a scientific claim and is thus unjustifiable by scientism’s standards.

      And given the necessity thesis, the only possible justification for the sufficiency thesis is circular.

      In contrast, non-scientismists can give a non-circular justification for the sufficiency thesis.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        As I described way above, philosophy is unable to capture facts of observations and theory.

        For example, well tested theories aim to be “circular”, based on and predicting the same facts.

        Your analysis doesn’t come to grip with the simple fact that we can observe that science works, and that is enough.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      the claim that only science provides knowledge is not a scientific claim and thus, if true, would by its own truth make it false.

      Of course it is a scientific claim, it is even a simple observation. Philosophy has nothing to do with it, how could it, philosophy is more or less well based opinion?

      C&P from earlier:

      Physicalism (aka “scientism”) is, like atheism, an observation.

      Science works, which is why science is done in the first place. Call that “science”.

      Nothing else does as witnessed by a continuing failure to provide alternative knowledge. The observation of the disappeared gap, that we now know the laws underlying everyday physics completely, is the basis for “physicalism”.

      Atheism is, in this sense, a corollary to physicalism.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        More to the point, rather than “philosophy is more or less well based opinion”, philosophy informs how well based an opinion is (beyond any scientific bases).

        /@

  13. marksolock
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Please email me Hughes’ paper. Thanks.

    Sent from my iPhone

  14. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

    There are other ways of knowing. I don’t know what they are, but there are other ways. I’m absolutely certain of it. I can’t provide any scientific evidence for it, because I’m using one of those other ways of knowing right now. Nevertheless, I know there are other ways of knowing, simply because I just know there are other ways of knowing.

    Gurgleblizzop. See? How could science possibly predict that I was going to say that word? I knew I was going to say it. How? I just knew.

    Q.E.D.

  15. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    This term “scientism” has gained a lot of traction in recent years. It’s similar to claims that the POTUS is a Muslim. Because the POTUS has a name (esp the middle name) that is associated with known or knowable Muslims, therefore …. Muslim! Similarly, certain broad-scope words that are widely viewed as negatives (Communism, Socialism, etc) end in “ism”, so that marrying “science” as “scient” (similar to the way that the Republican party refers to the Democratic party as the “Democrat Party”) plus “ism” results in a word that is loaded a priori with negative baggage.

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how being labelled with “scientism” can be negative, they rarely get away with it.
      When I was a child being a nerd, geek or boffin was considered derogative. I was quick to realise it was more meaningful as a compliment. Those that use words like scientism, nerd, socialist, muslim etc. appear to be foolish, they are not negative descriptions. I can’t see a difference between them and a kid on my Xbox calling me gay.

      • Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        Alex, I do see your point- BG, a famous software company owner, was also labeled as a “geek” and whatever he did that caused such a name seemed to work for him!
        I do get slightly annoyed by the idea that scientists are being unfairly criticized, and this seems to be cloaked in the term “scientism.” From what I’ve gathered, scientists work very hard, and in many cases the pay is not commensurate with their contribution to the betterment of the world. Using derogatory language such as “scientism or reductionism” only serves to belittle or discredit. I hope that bright people will continue to go into science-related fields. I think that the reason Hughes’ article was more objectionable than some of the other criticisms (by philosophers)is because he is a scientist! Why attack your own field? Seems self-defeating. For Pete’s sake- why can’t we support scientists’ efforts and appreciate their hard work?!

      • Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

        Can’t remember where, but on one post on some blog someone said we should take back (if we ever owned it) ‘scientism’ as a positive label for those that really do think that science, empiricism, is based on the only way humans have of knowing: experiencing and reasoning about the world; and that science in particular is the best way of gaining knowledge because it is the most rigorous set of methods we have for compensating for the flaws in our natural faculties.

        • Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

          Theologian Albert Mohlerdefined scientism as “the belief that modern naturalistic science is the great unifying answer to the most basic questions of human life.” I’m still can’t see how that is actually a bad thing…

          /@

  16. Gordon Hill
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    It would seem that a clear definition of scientism demands one of science… which is… elusive as well.

    When we speak of knowledge, to what extent is uncertainty allowed? I find it interesting that one of my scientific references, The Oxford Dictionary of Science, contains no definition for the term.

    Maybe science is like pornography… can’t define it, but know it when I see it… ;-)

  17. Occam
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Hughes writes:

    Consider the decades during which Soviet biology was dominated by the ideologically motivated theories of the geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics as inconsistent with Marxism and insisted that acquired characteristics could be inherited. An observer who distinguishes good science from bad science “by reference to institutional factors” alone would have difficulty seeing the difference between the unproductive and corrupt genetics in the Soviet Union and the fruitful research of Watson and Crick in 1950s Cambridge.

    This is easily the most specious misrepresentation of Lysenkoism I have ever come across outside Soviet propaganda. Considering the many human tragedies it caused, it is also — sorry, I find no other word for it — shameless.
    Lysenko’s shtick made such a long-seller because his nonsense corresponded exactly to the requirements of the ruling Soviet ideology. It was extremely convenient for Stalin. In a cruelly ironic twist, it was even more convenient, in the short term, for Nikita Khrushchev.

    Lysenkoism was not about biology, it was about pure politics. Nothing to do with science at all. It was ideological anti-science similar to the kind peddled nowadays by, say, creationists and charlatans of that ilk. Anyone conflating Lysenko with real science, or even with ‘scientism’ (votever dot minz), is seeking to insinuate, consciously or not, a false “True Scotsman Fallacy”.

    Not only Mendelian genetics (or, as Soviet propaganda would have it, “Morganism”) were thwarted during Lysenko’s ascendancy. Biologists of great accomplishment and repute were demoted, persecuted, imprisoned, in some cases murdered. Remember the fate of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. The consequences for Soviet agriculture, hence for the nourishment of the Soviet population, were disastrous.

    The “institutional” argument doesn’t bite, because any normal functioning of self-regulating scientific institutions was wrecked. And merely looking at the functioning of established institutions from the outside, without gauging them according to tested and informed standards, does not tell you much, if anything, about the work they do. I sense a sociological straw man there, a canard of the kind one would rather expect from Bruno Latour.

    • Simon Spiegal
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      If anyone is, you appear to be the one committing the No True Scotsman fallacy (note the “no” at the start – more of this later). That is, here is someone, manifestly a scientist doing science, who you are claiming is not a scientist because no true scientist would do that. That is virtually the definition of the “no true Scotsman fallacy” – a fallacy where one rejects a counterexample by modifying the term, in this case “scientist”, to exclude specifically the thing that is the counterexample. This is why the fallacy is called the NO true Scotsman fallacy and not the true Scotsman fallacy. That is, the fallacy turns on claiming that counterexamples which manifestly are counterexamples are not really counterexamples because the counterexample is NOT a real (true) example of a scientist (Scotsman).

      • darrelle
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        I think you are off target here. Lysenko was not practicing science correctly. He was not following where the data leads. He decided what he wanted the answers to be and then selectively used data to support those answers. This is bad science. Yes, it happens, people are people no matter what activity they are engaged in.

        But how is that an example or product of scientism? It is not. It is an example of bad science by a scientist that let political ideology corrupt his science. Not an example of someone who let their belief that science is the only effective way to gain accurate and useful information about reality therefore deciding to use science to investigate biological questions when actually it was not the best method and he should really have been using Continental Philosophy. Therefore no “no true scotsman” fallacy has been committed.

        No, Hughes use of Lysenkoism as an example of how scientism can lead to bad things is ridiculous. It’s Not Even Wrong.

        • Simon Spiegal
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          Hughes doesn’t use Lysenko as an example of how scientism can lead to bad things.

          • darrelle
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

            You are of course correct. My mistake.

      • Tulse
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Simon, you seem blinded by the trappings of science, so much so that you seem unable to distinguish appearance from actual practice. By your account, homeopathy would be real medicine because practitioners call themselves “doctors” and wear white coats.

        • Simon Spiegal
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          You missed the point. The point was that Hughes didn’t commit a no true Scotsman fallacy.

          • Tulse
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

            You seem to have missed my (and Jerry’s) point, which is that it is inaccurate to call Lysenko an actual scientist. He certainly wasn’t someone who used observation and reason alone to make claims — his work was driven by extra-scientific considerations.

            • Simon Spiegal
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

              But since that wasn’t Hughes’ point, it seems that the criticism is invalid. And it’s not as if it’s hard to find examples of outrageous horrors committed by scientists doing science – some of it so good that it is still cited in journals to this day.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                Hughes’ point at that juncture was to attack the definition of science as what scientists do, which is the basis for physicalism or, more generally, for any empirical theory describing science.

                It seems pertinent to note that the social institutions that would pass the criteria of doing testable science would fail the institutions that supported Lysenkoism. (Compare with creationists.)

                You are, it seems to me , waffling.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      Those Marxist-Leninists loved them some hyphenation with their ideological genealogies, so the eebil Mendelist-Morganists were opposed by the Soviet heroes following true Darwinism in the footsteps of Michurin and Williams, led by Trofim Denisovich.

      I own a translation of the ‘verbatim’ Proceedings of the Lenin Academy of Agrcultural Sciences of the USSR for 1948, and read it once as tragedy and the second time as the libretto of a heavily ironic opera staged as a harvest festival…

      The parallel of Marx-Lenin-Stalin with Darwin-Michurin-Lysenko is not particularly subtle. Vavilov is just as essential to the drama as Trotsky, though neither is ever mentioned by name, the triumphalism (symbolised by announcements of ever greater productivity of grain and tractors) is about celebrating their deaths and making sure they’re properly denounced.

  18. Jonathan Houser
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    As with most disputes, I think it all comes down to the meaning and understanding of words.

    “Truth” I think is an unfortunately broad word that we use to mean way too many things. Science gives us objective truths about how the universe works. But it doesn’t give subjective truths (which the word “opinion” is too narrow to cover) that matter to us as humans. I think that is more of an “existential truth.”

    If somebody asks me why I decided to pick one Degree over another, the “objective truth” would be that a series of largely deterministic cause and effect sequences happened, ones that I really had no real awareness of. Maybe I would’ve decided to get a degree in Theatre if only the school bus had been late on my first day of third grade thusly setting off completely different series of events in my life. That may be totally objectively true, but it is not at all a satisfying answer.

    An existential truth may be that I decided to pursue a degree in the sciences because I was curious about the universe, because I had a burning desire to understand things. None of that accounts for any of the objective truths of why I really pursued a degree in science, and it is in fact completely unverifiable aside from the fact that I am saying that it is true. In reality my “existential truth” is just a narrative construct that I use to add context and meaning to a series of purely deterministic and from my perspective seemingly random events that actually guided me down the road to science. But my narrative construct, my “existential truth” isn’t an opinion, it is more than an opinion. But it isn’t a scientific fact either. But is it “true?”

    Now the part to really bake your noodle, is anything I just said true or false? Can that be adduced scientifically? Or do we need a different tool set? Does the word “opinion” really do justice to anything in this discussion? There are truths beyond objective facts about the universe, the problem is that these truths are not “facts.”

    Alot of disputes are disputes because of language more than anything.

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      +1

      That was linguistically well-stated, with absolutely no pun intended.
      ;)

      • Jonathan Houser
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Thanks.

        I think the consistent demand that philosophy is only a valid “way of knowing” if it produces scientific “facts” as if that is the litmus test for all knowledge is circular and hubristic. It is fixing the game.

        Science is the only thing that produces scientific knowledge, ergo only science can adduce knowledge, as long as you define knowledge as “only knowledge that can be arrived at scientifically.” That radically illogical sequence of thought, along with the suggestion that this conclusion is obvious and common sense, is the thing that really gets my goat in these discussions.

        • Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

          Care to buck the trend and offer an example of philosophic knowledge inaccessible to science?

          b&

          • Simon Spiegal
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            Scientism is self-refuting. There, an example of a piece of philosophical knowledge, inaccessible to science.

            • Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

              If you examine the means by which you know that scientism is self-refuting, I do believe that you’ll note that it’s by a rational analysis of empirical evidence….

              b&

          • Jonathan Houser
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

            Did you read my comment above at all?

            • Jonathan Houser
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, I mean comment 18, the original comment that I replied to a reply to, and then you replied to and here we are. Comment 18 was very specifically about the question you asked.

              • Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

                Sorry — I got lost in the tangle of comments.

                All your examples are fuzzily-defined and very broad, and you’re insisting that they be distilled down to single bullet-point answers.

                You may think that science works that way, but it doesn’t.

                To scientifically answer your question of why you chose the degree you did, you would start with exactly the same sort of analysis you embarked upon in the post. A thorough answer would require insights gained through both psychology and sociology, with a generous helping of anthropology, history, and more. And the conclusion most emphatically would not be “because you missed the bus one day.”

                Indeed, it’s unlikely that anybody qualified to answer that question would be interested in limiting the answer to only you, but would instead broaden it into a comprehensive study of the factors that go into student choices of majors, and would break down the analysis by geographic distribution, socioeconomic status, and more.

                When it comes right down to is, asking why you chose the one major instead of the other is as meaningful as the four-year-old’s game of “Why?”

                Yes, there are answers. No, there isn’t a single answer that can be stated with a single sentence. “Because,” that’s why.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Jonathan Houser
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, this is for Mr. Goren below, but due to the long string, can’t reply directly.

                All of the socioeconomic and psychological explanations are merely correlations used to make predictions, they don’t answer why anymore than saying “because I missed the bus.” In fact, it is the exact same kind of knowledge as saying “because I missed the bus” that is to say a strictly deterministic kind of truth that is objectively true, but existentially meaningless. Saying “I did it because I belong to socioeconomic group x, and had upbringing y, and x+y= science” is just a more complex version of “because you missed the bus.

                Whatever answer I personally give will still be true, and have absolutely nothing to do with the aforementioned facts. I will not reply “because I was born into a middle upper class family, and my parents read to me a minimum of three times a week giving me the linguistic skills I would need to form nuanced views at an early age spurring curiousity in grades 1-5 ect ect ect.” My actual answer, the answer anyone would expect and find meaningful would be an answer that couldn’t be arrived at or verified scientifically, but would none the less be “true”.

              • Jonathan Houser
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Also I would like to comment on the assertion that asking why I chose a certain degree is as meaningful as a 4 year old asking “why.”

                That is (and I hate to use the term, since it has become a pejorative) “scientism” in a nutshell. Is it an objective fact? No? It is a meaningless an probably asinine question then, moving on. I think many of these, eh “antiscientism” advocates are saying that there are things worth “knowing” that aren’t simply facts. And science isn’t equipped for dealing with any question that doesn’t have a factual answer.

                I think those on the “scientism” side are afraid of is that conceding ground opens the door for theology, and “other ways of knowing” to start making claims about how the universe works. In reality though, they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. The problem isn’t people saying there are other kinds of truth, but rather people confusing existential truths with scientific ones.

                Theologians treat the question of god as a philosophical question, when it is a scientific one. It is a question of whether not an actual entity exists, an objective fact. That is their error though, and denying all other fields of study of things that could be defined as “true or false” as being inadequate to answer anything is a gross over reaction to that problem. One that is making enemies where there could be allies. There are lots of athiestic philosophers, artists, and literary types that are all being told that the only thing they are good for is evaluating sophistry, and that “truth” belongs to science and science alone.

              • Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

                That is (and I hate to use the term, since it has become a pejorative) “scientism” in a nutshell. Is it an objective fact? No? It is a meaningless an probably asinine question then, moving on.

                Just because a question is unanswerable, or because you don’t like the answer, or because you don’t understand the answer does not mean that therefore any answer you choose to make up is therefore valid.

                Thinking that your un-evidenced or irrational answers are valid is the very definition of faith, and faith is the foundation upon which every form of deception is built. Especially confidence scams such as religion.

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Jonathan Houser
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          Now that I think about it, this dispute could be solved almost entirely by changing it from “ways of knowing” which is a ridiculously fuzzy and ambiguous term, to simply saying “science is the best method of finding objective facts.” Bam, problem solved. Art, literature and ect can still be a part of finding the broader “truth,” but if you want a “fact” look to science.

          There, it’s fixed now, good game everyone. Lets get’s some drinks.

          • darrelle
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            Vodka martini, slightly dirty, with blue cheese stuffed olives, please! Could really use one of those after this past week. Oh, did I hear you say two for one?

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          That is not illogical at all, it is a testable definition of science.

          Is it the philosophical monster of “no circularity” that raises its head again? Well tested theories aim to be circular, constructed on observations that they are then tested by.

          Certainly the method breaks circularity, it has to, but I take it is a good example of the fluffy definition of “circular argument” that for some reason or other philosophy can’t handle.

  19. Julie Ellis
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Glad to hear you are visiting USC. Will you talk be open to the public? I’d very much like to attend. As to barbecue in Columbia, I’d recommend Palmetto Pig and Little Pigs!

  20. Kevin
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    “combined with a complete failure to cite any questions that been answered by these other ways”

    What is the capital of France?
    Who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II?
    What is the currency of Thailand?

    Unless there is a scientific way of answering these questions?

    • wildhog
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Science doesnt require a test-tube and a lab coat, it is merely the practice of learning about the world through empirical investigation. Therefore, the only way to answer those questions is through science. Prayer, tarot cards, and clairvoyance wont get you the answers.

    • Brygida Berse
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      These are questions about facts. How are they different from asking, for example:

      Who was the biological father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby?

      What was the first animal that walked on land?

    • Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      If you understand science in the broadest possible sense as rational analysis of empirical observations, then those are all trivial to answer scientifically.

      For example, you could start by consulting a number of sources of varying degrees of authority to see what they claim to be the capital of France — say, the dictionary and Wikipedia. You could then expand your search to more official sources, such as the nearest French consulate or embassy as well as the United Nations. Those two should be sufficient, but you could continue your research by examining the actual offices of the capital in Paris and, further, by performing a statistically-significant survey of sufficient numbers of people in France to determine what they consider their capital to be, along with a sufficient number of heads of state to determine what they consider the French capital to be.

      In so doing, you would eventually establish as much confidence in your answer as a scientist does in most phenomena generally considered scientific — say, the gravitational constant.

      Note that your answer wouldn’t exactly be, “Paris,” because a sufficient investigation would reveal the existence of, for example, Basque separatists who would have a problem with the notion of French borders and the designation of Paris as their capital.

      You would, of course, discover similar outliers in answers to your other two questions. Chamberlin, not Churchill, of course, was Prime Minister during the early days of WWII, and I have no doubt but that a number of currencies other than the Baht, especially the US Dollar and presumably both the Chinese Yuan and Japanese Yen, play prominent roles in Thailand’s internal economy.

      How to scientifically answer the questions raised in the preceding paragraph is left as an exercise to the reader….

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Gary W
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Unless there is a scientific way of answering these questions?

      The *only* way of answering those questions is through observation and reasoning. That is, the only way is the “scientific way.” It’s not science in the formal sense, but it’s an informal application of the same method.

  21. wildhog
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    If we speak of philosophy, as opposed to science, what do we mean by that? Philosophy attempts to reach conclusions, but it must not do it based on evidence and empirical investigation, or else it would be science! So the “science vs philosophy” question could be described as “conclusions that come from evidence and empirical investigation versus conclusions that dont come from evidence and empirical investigation”. How absurd that anyone would argue that the latter has authority over the former.

    • Simon Spiegal
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Every scientific question, and every scientific answer, exists only within a context (of knowledge) that is not based on evidence or empirical investigation. Thus science is shot through with philosophy, and sometimes, when that is forgotten and science errs, philosophy can clarify and correct. This is one of the advantages of being a meta-inquiry.

      The issue here can be visualised by thinking of science and philosophy as two circles, with the scientific circle completely encompassed by the far larger circle that is philosophy. Contrast this with your view visualised as two circles not overlapping and some distance apart.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        You know what?

        Religions also claim ownership of science, through some sort of blather about further glorifying the works of their gods.

        Science is the rational analysis of empirical observations. Take away the empiricism or the reason, and science is nothing — and worse than useless, to boot.

        Philosophers are quite happy to think their deep thoughts in the absence of evidence. As such, philosophy is best understood as atheistic theology, and not as non-empirical science.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Simon Spiegal
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          I don’t really care what religions say. My point was about the relationship between science and philosophy. As such, it was a perfectly reasonable point, made no less reasonable by your bizarre attempt to change the subject.

          • Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            And my point is that the empirical evidence indicates that philosophy is the same vacuous intellectual masturbation that theologians have mastered, only without the deities.

            If I were to be generous, I’d acknowledge that science in general traces its roots to philosophy, in the same way that astronomy is descended from astrology, chemistry from alchemy, neurobiology from phrenology, and so on. But, as such, philosophy is no more relevant to science than Biblical cures for leprosy are to oncology.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Simon Spiegal
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

              No the empirical evidence doesn’t show that at all – how could it, since science is shot through with philosophy and is itself part of philosophy. See my circles examples above. The fact you don’t understand this point is neither here nor there.

              • abandonwoo
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                Imagine two circles visible on the computer screen you are looking at. The circle on the side opposite your right eye, Philosophy, is the size of a silver dollar and the full circle is visible on the screen. Like a watch dial, the 12:00 o’clock position is at the top of the circle and 6;00 o’clock is at the bottom. The circle is filled with gray shade where all that is possible within the discipline named Philosophy is presently known, and the entire circle is gray except for a blank portion near 3:00. The blank section is reserved for possible new information that may be added to the shaded part; unfortunately, we are only able to guess there even is more information that may be discovered, and how much of the circle it should represent. I picture it as a small area, but I could not prove that in court, so envision its size as you wish.

                The second circle is the set of that which is presently understood as a result of testable explanations. Includes within is a subset of predictions about unknowns, predictions based upon the results of existing testable explanations. It is understood that both present explanations and existing predictions are subject to refinement and/or revision as necessary, due to any number of presently unforeseen empirical criteria which may become available for any reason.

                Circle two is labelled for, convenience/communications sake, somewhat colloquially as “science”, but it should be referred to instead as Reality. Scientific method is the best tool currently understood that provides a way to understand Reality.

                This circle (Reality/science), too, is comprised of a shaded area representing the set of testable explanations, and a blank area representing what is not presently known. This Reality/science circle intersects Philosophy circle at 3:00, but includes only a sliver of it — that portion which provides guidance for the process of reason.

                Almost all of the rest of the Reality/science circle is not visible on the computer screen, of course: it is important to note that this symbolic analogy is quite likely wildly unrepresentative of the actual difference between the sizes of the two circles, because it is impossible to say for certain that Reality/science is finite.

              • abandonwoo
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

                Addendum: it is also impossible to know how much of the circle Reality/science should be shaded to represent what is known, and how much to leave blank. My guess is the that blank portion begins in the Reality/science circle not far to the left of 3:00.

      • darrelle
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        “Every scientific question, and every scientific answer, exists only within a context (of knowledge) that is not based on evidence or empirical investigation.”

        This is not true. The ultimate test of scientific knowledge is that it works, repeatedly, all the time, as predicted. This is very simple. That it is observed to work is empirical evidence that the science is an accurate and useful description of reality. This in turn is evidence in support of the context within which this all takes place in.

        Above you expressed irritation about people playing games with the meanings of words during discussions on this topic. I think you are a bit guilty of that yourself. The meanings of words like “knowledge” and “true” in the context of this particular topic have been discussed by all sides every time it comes up, so I would think that you should have a pretty good idea what the OP or even most commentors mean when they use those terms. Your claim that the OP’s argument reduces down to “only science can answer scientific questions” is cheeky at best.

        • Simon Spiegal
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          I’m not playing games with words – it’s perfectly clear that all of science takes place within a non-scientific context exactly as described. The problem, however, is that this is quite tricky to explain, and impossible, like everything else, to explain to people who desperately don’t want to understand it.

          • darrelle
            Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            But you are playing games, at least to the same extent as you complain that others do. What does it matter that science takes place within a non-scientific context? And define non-scientific and please describe the context.

            You complain that others desperately don’t want to understand. Perhaps they have considered the arguments you favor and have decided that they are not persuasive. In any case, please explain. I would like to understand you.

            • Simon Spiegal
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

              It matters because science is nothing on its own. Thus scientism makes no sense because it proceeds from the assumption that there is some thing called science that, on its own, is not only useful but the only way to do anything, when the truth is that on its own science can’t do anything at all. And this gets worse when supporters of scientism start to attack the very thing (non-scientific knowledge) that holds it in place in the first place.

              • darrelle
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

                Just to be clear in case you are missing it, “science” in the context of discussions of “scientism”, as used by those being accused of “scientism”, is a one word term to describe the basic methods of inquiry that have been used informally since long before the word science was coined, and which are now considered to be foundational to formal science. Everybody, even the most ardent religious believer, uses these methods every day.

                The statement “It matters because science is nothing on its own,” doesn’t really make any sense to me, though I think I understand what you mean. It seems to simply be a lead in to then claim that, “Thus scientism makes no sense because it proceeds from the assumption that there is some thing called science that, on its own, is not only useful but the only way to do anything, when the truth is that on its own science can’t do anything at all.” While that may in some sense be true, it is also true that we would not be able to accurately model any aspects of reality if we did not employ the methods of science, in the general meaning of the word. Except by accident of course.

                I don’t know where you get the “on its own” there. I mean obviously it is your interpretation of what proponents of science have said, but I think you are wrong. I certainly would not claim that science, in the formal or informal meaning of the word, is the only way to do anything, or the only relevant activity. And I don’t know anyone who would. People being people I am sure some small number would, but they would be an insignificant number.

                I do agree though that your idea of scientism does not make any sense.

                I think you are also wrong about those you categorize as “supporters of scientism” attacking “non-scientific” knowledge. What they, I, do criticize is people claiming that “other ways of knowing” can produce information that, though it can not be verified by any method that trial and error over thousands of years has shown to be effective at doing so, but is nevertheless an accurate description of reality.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        “I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance.”

        So we can dump philosophy from science fully. So you are wrong.

        The attempts to pry open a gap for philosophy where no gap exist is an endearing trait. It shows how much philosophy (opinion) has in common with religion (belief).

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          And, as I am reminded of later in the thread, the irony of rampant philosophism is hilarious!

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

          :D

          + 1

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      +1.

  22. Jonathan Houser
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    The amusing irony is that this entire discussion is a philosophical discussion, not a scientific one. But no doubt we (the one’s engaging in the discussion) believe that there is a “right” and “wrong” answer.

    • Simon Spiegal
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      I’m currently examining the pixels on my screen under x50 magnification, and have sent a sample to the lab for chemical analysis. I will announce the results of my scientific investigation into who is right due course.

  23. Richard Wein
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    These complaints about scientism are so philosophically naive!

    The complainants are generally wedded to a demarcationist view that there is a fundamental boundary between science and non-science. They also seem wedded to an idealist view of language that reifies nouns, making science and philosophy into two completely distinct things.

    On a more realistic view of language we see can see that the words “science” and “philosophy” are labels that get applied on the basis of all sorts of different criteria, making their meaning quite vague, so that the categories of science and philosophy are best seen as fuzzy, overlapping clouds.

    Granted, on the other side there is a tendency to respond to this fuzziness by redefining “science” to refer to all empirical thought or even all rational thought. I think that’s an over-reaction. It’s difficult to have a sensible conversation when people start redefining a central term. But this is a relatively minor (if annoying to me) semantic issue. It is far less serious than the denial of fuzziness, which leads to some serious substantive errors. In particular, it stops many philosophers (but by no means all) from adopting a more naturalized, scientific attitude towards traditionally philosophical questions.

    But the main point is that once we see the science/philosophy distinction as a very fuzzy one, we can stop wasting time worrying over whether to call a question “scientific” or “philosophical”. The real questions should be (a) does this question have any real significance, and if so (b) how best should we answer it?

    • darrelle
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      And (c) how best to determine to what extent our answer comports with reality?

  24. James Chalmers
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I hope somebody will refute what Stephen Spiegal says at 12 above.
    “Subjective” seems to suggest or imply that the we should take the locus of confirmation to be the mind of the person holding the belief in question. So my belief “the practice of torture by military and intelligence agencies was highly reprehensible and illegal as well” then has no justificatory basis in reports of what was done in those years or in legal and moral standards violated then. The standards are mine all the way down, they have no objective referent. They happen to be shared by others, but still the point of reference and basis of confirmation (such as it is) can exist only in the mind. But when I say “what Yoo and his crew did was wrong,” I’m not referring to any belief of my own. I’m talking about the moral standing of what they did. I’m not making an empirical remark, but nor am I talking about what’s my belief system–I’m talking about the morality of what they did. And I don’t defend my belief it was wrong by talking about my mental states, any more than Coyne defends his belief in natural selection by talking about his mental states. My rationale isn’t a scientific one, but to say it’s a moral one isn’t to show that it’s subjective. Does Coyne want to concede to Yoo that their difference is nothing more than a subjective matter of opinion, such that one is no better justified than the other?

    • Gary W
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      But when I say “what Yoo and his crew did was wrong,” I’m not referring to any belief of my own. I’m talking about the moral standing of what they did.

      But the moral standing of what they did (i.e, whether it was morally right or wrong) is utimately a matter of preference. It’s subjective. You can’t prove that torture is wrong any more than you can prove that blue is prettier than red.

      • Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        You can’t prove that torture is wrong any more than you can prove that blue is prettier than red.

        You can, however, ascertain the effectiveness of torture at achieving various aims.

        And, as it turns out, torture is ineffective at everything except satisfying the sick psychosexual power fantasies of the torturers.

        It does not produce reliable actionable intelligence; it is actively detrimental to the security of your own agents (as it provides an incentive for the supporters of your victims to retaliate in kind); and it is virulently corrosive to anything even vaguely resembling a civilized society based upon Enlightenment values — most especially one with constitutional provisions for due process and against cruel and unusual punishments.

        If your personal preference is inclusive of torture, you are an uncivilized barbarian unworthy of respect.

        b&

        • Gary W
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          [Torture] does not produce reliable actionable intelligence

          Torture has produced actionable intelligence. Even just the threat of torture has produced actionable intelligence. It doesn’t have to be “reliable” to yield information that saves lives.

          and it is virulently corrosive to anything even vaguely resembling a civilized society based upon Enlightenment values

          No it isn’t.

          • onkelbob
            Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

            Torture has produced actionable intelligence.

            Unless you possess the proper security clearance, and the need to know, your statement is on the face of it, pure conjecture. Moreover, if you do indeed have the necessary prerequisites, and have revealed this in public you committed a capital offense. Using my previous military experience and security clearances, I must assume you do not have a clue. No one would reveal TS information to win an internet debate.
            That said, in flight training, everyone undergoes an exercise known as prison camp (part of Evade and Escape). During that time trainees are subjected to stress. (I was locked in a shipping container for unknown number of hours.) During that time you are interrogated. If you reveal anything other than name, rank, serial number, you fail. Now failure does not drum you out, it only prolongs your stay in camp. (You only learn that afterward.) If you say anything, lie, truth, or something in between, you fail. They asked questions about number of crew-members in the fictional plane crash I survived, type of plane, all sorts of nondescript seemingly harmless information. Again, the way to pass was name, rank, serial number. Another part of the training involved non-stress interrogation (Think the good cop coming in after the bad cop just got you to pee your pants because you were locked in a shipping container) Again, name, rank, serial number, is the key to release, anything else, you stay in the camp. At the debrief, it was conveyed that more information was gathered during the second part then during the first part. Indeed, most of the “information” gathered during the stress was lies and confused statements, while the second part gleaned the useful stuff.
            I am unimpressed with your postings so far, and I usually avoid such discussions. However, the force with which you make these statements (Torture works, is not harmful, etc.) compels me to call your bluff. You do not and cannot know the effectiveness of such interrogations. If you do indeed know, you would never reveal them or their mere presence for fear of punishment. Your opinion appears to be based on some fantasy rather than any real world experience or empirical evidence.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

              Unless you possess the proper security clearance, and the need to know, your statement is on the face of it, pure conjecture.

              No it isn’t. There are many documented cases in which torture has produced actionable intelligence. There are documented cases in which even the mere threat of torture has produced actionable intelligence, such as the child-kidnapping case in Germany in which the threat of torture induced the kidnapper to reveal where he had hidden the child.

              • Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller (a real life “M”, who was paid to know about this stuff) opined in her Reith Lectures that:

                – Tactically, torture works;
                – Strategically, it’s a disaster. However many people it may save in the short term, in the long term it sets up problems which will kill far more people.

                I’d love to believe that torture didn’t work. Then I wouldn’t have to face the awkward moral question of whether to sacrifice my children’s world to safe my own.

              • Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller (a real life “M”, who was paid to know about this stuff) opined in her Reith Lectures that:

                – Tactically, torture works;
                – Strategically, it’s a disaster. However many people it may save in the short term, in the long term it sets up problems which will kill far more people.

                I’d love to believe that torture didn’t work. Then I wouldn’t have to face the awkward moral question of whether to sacrifice my children’s world to save my own.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

                - Tactically, torture works;
                – Strategically, it’s a disaster. However many people it may save in the short term, in the long term it sets up problems which will kill far more people.

                Well, I’m glad to see that Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller (love the name!) concedes that torture sometimes works.

                Does she offer any argument to support her opinion about its strategic effects?

              • Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                Not sure why you said “concede”. She was giving her professional opinion after a career spent in counter terrorism and counter espionage, eventually getting the top job in the UK.

                I can’t remember the whole set of lectures, but the burden was that every torture victim generates resentment which encourages more people to fight you. (And quite right too: I would hope that we would all stand against a state that tortured our friends and family.)

                If you can get hold of them, the Reith Lectures from 2011 are well worth listening to: a lot of solid common sense.

                (If you can’t, I can always see if I can listen again and note the key points.)

              • abandonwoo
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                BBC Radio 4 – The Reith Lectures
                http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9
                Reith Lectures Archive: 1976-2011. Series of annual radio lectures on significant contemporary issues, delivered by leading figures.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

                I can’t remember the whole set of lectures, but the burden was that every torture victim generates resentment which encourages more people to fight you.

                Again, does she have any evidence for that claim, or is she just speculating? If it’s true for torturing people, it seems likely that it would be true for killing and injuring people too. Does that mean killing and injuring people is never justified?

                In a ticking time bomb situation, if time is running out and conventional interrogation techniques have been tried and failed, I doubt that interrogators are going to refrain from the use of torture because of concerns that it might encourage more people to fight in the long run. The immediate, concrete, urgent need to find the bomb is probably going to override speculation about potential adverse long-term consequences of a single act of torture.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

                Gary, do you have any examples of a “ticking time bomb” case where actionable intelligence was obtained by torture that would not have been obtainable by any other methods?

                Frankly, I think the ticking time bomb example is a very poor argument, precisely because it is in such cases that the tortur-ee holds all the cards. If you know your torturers have a deadline, all you need do is make them chase their tails until the deadline arrives, and provide them with plausible dis-information that both stops them from torturing you and keeps them from actually preventing the attack. Coercion in these cases would presumably be far less effective than in cases where the subject doesn’t know how long they can be held and tortured.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

                Gary, do you have any examples of a “ticking time bomb” case where actionable intelligence was obtained by torture that would not have been obtainable by any other methods?

                The argument is that torture may be justified in such a scenario, not that the scenario has actually occurred (although I’m not saying it hasn’t).

                Frankly, I think the ticking time bomb example is a very poor argument, precisely because it is in such cases that the tortur-ee holds all the cards. If you know your torturers have a deadline, all you need do is make them chase their tails until the deadline arrives, and provide them with plausible dis-information that both stops them from torturing you and keeps them from actually preventing the attack.

                How does the tortur-ee hold all the cards? He has a huge incentive to give his interrogators the information they want to stop or prevent them from torturing him. The experience of being tortured may be so unbearable to him that he reveals the information after just a minute or two of torture. His fear of torture may be so great that even just the threat of torture will induce him to talk (as in the German child-kidnapping case that I mentioned previously).

                Of course, it’s possible that torture will not work. The prisoner may be able to withstand even excruciating pain until the bomb detonates. But any act that inflicts harm may not have the intended effect. A wartime bombing raid may kill innocent civilians but fail to achieve its military objective. A man who is executed or sent to jail for life may be innocent of the crime he was convicted of. There are no guarantees.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                The argument is that torture may be justified in such a scenario, not that the scenario has actually occurred (although I’m not saying it hasn’t).

                But by that argument I could justify baby-eating, because I’m sure I can come up with a scenario where the entire human race will be wiped out unless I eat a baby. Surely the actual likelihood of the scenario, and the efficacy of torture in such scenarios, is extremely important to determining whether it is “justified”.

                How does the tortur-ee hold all the cards? He has a huge incentive to give his interrogators the information they want to stop or prevent them from torturing him.

                No, he has a huge incentive to give his torturers something, anything, true or false, that will stop them from torturing him (which is always true), and in a true ticking time bomb scenario he knows that mis-information will not be able to be verified in time. In other words, in such scenarios there is even more incentive to lie than there is when there is no deadline for the torturers, where the extracted information can be verified at leisure. Thus, such information is even more likely to be unreliable than usual, and for the torturers is more likely to misdirect them and prevent them from achieving their goal.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                But by that argument I could justify baby-eating, because I’m sure I can come up with a scenario where the entire human race will be wiped out unless I eat a baby.

                Yes, I think you would be justified in eating a baby if the alternative was the extinction of the entire human race. Do you disagree? We have certainly killed numerous babies in the service of much less important goals than saving humanity from extinction (e.g. winning WWII).

                No, he has a huge incentive to give his torturers something, anything, true or false, that will stop them from torturing him (which is always true), and in a true ticking time bomb scenario he knows that mis-information will not be able to be verified in time.

                No he doesn’t. Helicopter teams are standing by to fly to the address he identifies as the location of the bomb. The information he provides can be verified in minutes. If he gives false information, the torture continues. That gives him a huge incentive to provide true information. As I said, even just the threat of torture may be sufficient to get him to talk.

                There are less time-sensitive scenarios where torture may be justified as well. An on-going bombing campaign by a terrorist cell in a major city, for example. Every few days, the terrorists detonate a bomb in a random populated location — a bar or restaurant, a shopping center, a movie theater, a subway station, an apartment building, etc. Each bomb kills and injures hundreds of people. The population would quickly become terrorized. People would flee the city, or be terrified to leave their homes. There would probably be curfews and martial law. Life in the city would grind to a halt. The authorities may then use torture on a captured terrorist to get the names and addresses of the other cell members who are making and planting the bombs.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I think you would be justified in eating a baby if the alternative was the extinction of the entire human race.

                OK, so how far down the utilitarian slippery slope are you willing to go? Is it OK to eat a baby to prevent the Holocaust? To prevent 9/11? To stop a few murders? (To paraphrase Shaw, we know what you are, now we’re just haggling about the price.)

                Or, perhaps more realistically, let’s get back to the ticking time bomb. Let’s say that we don’t know where the terrorist is who planted the bomb, but that we can capture his young family, including 3 toddlers, and we know that he cares deeply for his children. Would we be justified in torturing his innocent kids on live TV, with the message that we would stop if he called us and told us where the bomb was? (I know this is a realistic scenario, since I saw it on 24.) To show him we are serious, would we be justified in killing one of his children?

                Or alternatively, let’s say a terrorist tells us that there is a ticking bomb, but that he will disarm it if we torture a random person pulled of the street. Let’s say it is clear he will honour his word. Would we be justified in kidnapping and torturing an innocent citizen to stop a greater calamity?

                (As you yourself have indicated, for our discussion it doesn’t matter how far-fetched these scenario are, since “the argument is that torture may be justified in such a scenario, not that the scenario has actually occurred”.)

              • Posted December 10, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                I strongly suspect that she does have evidence, though I can’t recall how much she shared. It seems to me, though, that this is the behaviour that we would hope and expect that torture would produce: I think the burden is on you to prove that people are not moved to resistance.

                I was talking about the practical side rather than the tightly constructed thought experiment. If there ever was a “ticking bomb” situation, then 1. the security services have already failed: there is no win here, only a choice of fails (a bit like the trolley…) and 2. professional security staff would follow their standing orders, training and specific orders. Despite the best efforts of Hollywood to convince me of the contrary, I’d like to think that they only rarely go off the rails.

                abandonwoo,

                Thanks for posting the link. (My main concern was whether this would be available to everyone under current copyright laws.) I’ve just checked: you can see it from the US at least. The second of her lectures (confusingly, number four in that year’s series) is the one that deals with the rule of law.

                Gary,

                Whilst she does mention the practical impact of torture, I had forgotten that her position was largely a principled one. We follow the rule of law because it is the right thing to do: we don’t torture because torture is wrong. We can and should hold the moral high ground. This is axiomatic and requires no further justification.

                We didn’t resort to torturing high ranking German officers when we had lost our army and stood alone against Germany, Russia and the rest of Europe in the Winter of 1940 while the bombs rained down on all our major cities and we appeared to be facing annihilation. If we could hold our nerve then, why would we lose it to a few terrorists who murdered something like 0.001% of our population (rather less than the number that we willingly sacrifice on the roads every year).

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

                Tulse,

                OK, so how far down the utilitarian slippery slope are you willing to go?

                Depends on the situation. There’s no short and simple answer. Unless you believe that doing harm in the service of a greater good is never justified, you’re faced with the same question.

                You didn’t answer my question about your own scenario: Do you agree that you would be justified in eating a baby to save humanity from extinction? If not, why not?

                Or, perhaps more realistically, let’s get back to the ticking time bomb. Let’s say that we don’t know where the terrorist is who planted the bomb, but that we can capture his young family, including 3 toddlers, and we know that he cares deeply for his children. Would we be justified in torturing his innocent kids on live TV, with the message that we would stop if he called us and told us where the bomb was?… To show him we are serious, would we be justified in killing one of his children? … Or alternatively, let’s say a terrorist tells us that there is a ticking bomb, but that he will disarm it if we torture a random person pulled of the street. Let’s say it is clear he will honour his word. Would we be justified in kidnapping and torturing an innocent citizen to stop a greater calamity?

                In all three cases, possibly, yes. If the Allies were justified in killing millions of innocent civilians in World War II, why is the torture (defined in law as the temporary infliction of severe pain) of even a single individual never justified, no matter how large the potential benefit?

              • Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

                Torture is more than the temporary inflicting of severe pain. It is breaking a person’s will. The pain is temporary, but not the breakdown.

                The ticking time-bomb is a situation where you have already lost. Shit happens.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

                twisted,

                I strongly suspect that she does have evidence

                Suspicion of evidence is not evidence.

                I think the burden is on you to prove that people are not moved to resistance.

                No, the burden is on the one making the claim. It’s up to her to support her claim that (as you stated it) “in the long term [torture] sets up problems which will kill far more people [than it saves in the short term].” I don’t think she’ll be able to substantiate that claim, especially with respect to the limited use of torture in an emergency situation.

                We follow the rule of law because it is the right thing to do: we don’t torture because torture is wrong. We can and should hold the moral high ground. This is axiomatic and requires no further justification.

                Kant famously said the same thing about lying — that it’s always wrong regardless of circumstances. Kant thought it would be wrong to tell a lie even to save a billion lives. Do you agree with him? If not, why should we believe that torture is always wrong regardless of circumstances?

              • Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:45 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                If are claiming that torture will not inspire people to resist, it seems to me that that is the counter intuitive view which requires evidence. If you are making no such claim then we are in agreement and no evidence is required.

                But this is sophistry. Her second talk is about the rule of law. She gives the example of the British policy of internment without trial in Northern Ireland. A short lived policy which led a generation to believe that there was a level of oppression which justified armed resistance in the form of terrorism.

              • Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:47 am | Permalink

                And yes, torture is always wrong. Lying is different.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 11, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

                Torture is more than the temporary inflicting of severe pain.

                No it isn’t. That is exactly how torture is defined in law.

                If are claiming that torture will not inspire people to resist

                I’m not claiming that. I’m saying she needs to provide evidence to support her claim that torture will always end up killing more people than it saves. As Christopher Hitchens said, assertions made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

                And yes, torture is always wrong. Lying is different.

                In what relevant way is it different? If lying is not always wrong, why is torture always wrong?

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

                The Law needs a test, not an analysis of the effect.

                Your statement is exactly analogous to saying that the property of turning litmus paper red is all a chemist needs to know about acid.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                on the question of needing to provide evidence…

                You are of course quite within your rights to dismiss this assertion. And by the same logic, you cannot claim that use of torture is sometimes justified unless you can prove that it will not cause greater loss of life in the long term. Can you prove that?

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

                Lying is different because it is not always done with the specific intention of breaking somebody’s will.

                I didn’t say that lying isn’t always wrong.

                More to the point, you didn’t directly challenge the key statement, that torture is simply wrong. I have no defence for this. I can think of no possible scientific defence that wouldn’t, in the end, appeal to some equally unscientific principle. Yet we have to decide, one way or the other. What do you recommend?

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

                The Law needs a test, not an analysis of the effect.

                I don’t know what this means. The law explicitly defines torture in terms of “severe pain.” The pain doesn’t have to be excruciating or overwhelmingly or unbearable. Merely “severe.” People often suffer “severe” pain in life, from all sorts of commonplace things — injuries, illnesses, broken relationships, etc. I think the fact that torture is defined in law so broadly makes the position that torture is never justified, no matter how much good it could do, even more ridiculous.

                And by the same logic, you cannot claim that use of torture is sometimes justified unless you can prove that it will not cause greater loss of life in the long term.
                Huh? Why can’t I claim that? It’s an ethical claim, not an empirical one.

                Lying is different because it is not always done with the specific intention of breaking somebody’s will.

                So what? Why does that difference mean that torture is always wrong? Police and criminal justice procedures routinely have the specific intent of breaking somebody’s will. All methods of interrogating prisoners who do not want to cooperate have “the specific intention of breaking somebody’s will,” so if that is the nature of your objection you must believe that all interrogation is wrong.

                More to the point, you didn’t directly challenge the key statement, that torture is simply wrong.

                Huh? I’ve been challenging it from the start. Torture is sometimes justified. Torture is sometimes the right thing to do.

        • 39joshua
          Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          I’m curious about the comment you just made. Could I ask you this – if torture could be 100% shown in a certain instance to be effective, would it therefore be moral?

          • Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            Effective at what?

            Merely being effective at eliciting answers from your victim that the victim believes are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth would be largely irrelevant.

            I can’t possibly imagine how torture could even hypothetically be effective at preserving the rule of law, especially guarantees of due process and prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishments.

            Even within the context of information-gathering, you’re still gathering that information for a larger purpose — generally, in furtherance of a military or spy mission. And those missions are themselves pieces of a larger hot or cold war.

            But those wars are supposed to be there to preserve the society, and the society is its laws and foundational principles.

            Of what good is it to learn that the enemy has mined the entrance to the harbor if, in learning said knowledge, you turn your society into something as bad as or worse than what it would be if you simply surrendered to the enemy?

            Now, take a step back and realize that torture produces so many more bad answers than good ones and that you’re therefore left to means other than torture to verify anything you might think you learn, and therefore wind up wasting all kinds of resources on wild goose chases…well, you really have to be goddamned fucking stupid in addition to an evil motherfucking sonofabitch to think that there’s any good to be had from torture.

            b&

            • Gary W
              Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

              Now, take a step back and realize that torture produces so many more bad answers than good ones and that you’re therefore left to means other than torture to verify anything you might think you learn, and therefore wind up wasting all kinds of resources on wild goose chases……well, you really have to be goddamned fucking stupid in addition to an evil motherfucking sonofabitch to think that there’s any good to be had from torture.

              He can’t “realize” something that isn’t true. You haven’t produced a shred of evidence to support your empirical claims about torture, and your moral sermonizing is just a waste of time.

            • 39joshua
              Posted December 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for your response. I wonder if you’re being a little too neat in the point you’re making – would one act of torture in an extreme situation really bring the entire edifice down? Although I do see what you’re saying, how easy it can be to destroy civilized government by ignoring inconvenient moral rules, such as those that outlaw torture.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

                Thanks for your response. I wonder if you’re being a little too neat in the point you’re making – would one act of torture in an extreme situation really bring the entire edifice down?

                No, of course not. Ben Goren is engaging in absurd hyperbole, as usual. Several liberal democracies have used torture in recent history to combat threats to their national security, including the U.S., Britain, France and Israel. Others are suspected of using torture covertly, but have never acknowledged it. These countries did not descend into barbarism. The “slippery slope” argument against all use of torture, even in extraordinary circumstances, has never made much sense and is refuted by real-world experience.

              • Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                One act wouldn’t. Nor would the second. Or the third.

                But when you get to the stage where it has become an acceptable option for the forces of law and order, then you are fuelling your enemies’ sense of injustice and helping them recruit the next generation of freedom fighters. By giving them something worth fighting.

                There are plenty of historical examples. Northern Ireland, South Africa, pretty much every counter insurgency campaign I’ve ever heard of.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

                But when you get to the stage where it has become an acceptable option for the forces of law and order,

                I’m not advocating the use of torture as a routine part of law and order. I’m arguing against the position that torture is never justified at all.

              • Posted December 11, 2012 at 2:19 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                “I’m arguing for…”

                I don’t see any way that you can win this argument. Your utilitarian point of view is perfectly rational in itself but not the only rational system. Even if we accept a utilitarian view of what is good, there are real doubts as to whether accepting torture is a winning long term strategy.

                If you manage to refute the long term argument, you still need to demonstrate that utilitarianism is right. And this is a pure value judgement. Do you have any thoughts on how we might determine the best values?

              • Posted December 11, 2012 at 2:21 am | Permalink

                Oops. “I’m arguing against…”

                Obviously.

                :0(

              • Gary W
                Posted December 11, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

                Even if we accept a utilitarian view of what is good, there are real doubts as to whether accepting torture is a winning long term strategy.

                As I said, if the bomb is ticking and a million lives are at stake, “doubts” about whether “torture is a winning long term strategy” aren’t likely to override the urgent need to get the terrorist to talk.

                If you manage to refute the long term argument, you still need to demonstrate that utilitarianism is right.

                No one can demonstrate that any moral claim is “right” in the sense of being objectively correct, including your claim that torture is always wrong.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                “no-one can demonstrate…”

                Oops: exactly my point from the previous reply. And yet, we must take a position .

                The whole argument seems to reduce to which unprovable position you take.

                (I accept the principle that if you take a utilitarian view, you can stack the immediate costs in a thought experiment to overcome any estimate of the long term costs. This is simple arithmetic.)

              • Gary W
                Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                The whole argument seems to reduce to which unprovable position you take.

                Yes, it does. So why did you just claim that I “need to demonstrate that utilitarianism is right?”

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

                Sorry, Gary: that was short for “to prove your point, you need to demonstrate …”.

                If we are agreed that the point is unprovable either way, then clearly we can both stop right now.

                Thanks: good discussion!

  25. Chance
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Hughes’s abject failure to understand epistemology blatantly highlights the true source of our societal dysfunction. If even a scientist can be so confused on epistemology, what do we expect of our laypersons?

    All knowledge begins and ends with evidence. There are no ways of knowing apart from evidentialism. Science is the most refined form of evidentialism, thus science isn’t the only way (since it’s simply a subset of evidentialism), but it is by far the best way to “know”.

    • Jonathan Houser
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      To know what?

      • Chance
        Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        Anything, period.

        • Posted December 10, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

          Which is fine, so far as it goes. But sometimes we need to take action without “knowing” in this sense and without time to learn (or without time to apply what we do “know”).

          What is the sciencist’s (or “rational person’s”, if you prefer) position on this?

  26. joao romulo baptista e costa
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Dear, Mr. Coyne Would you please send me the ATKINS PDF? Best Regards, from Brazil Joo Rmulo Date: Sat, 8 Dec 2012 16:13:27 +0000 To: jromulobc@hotmail.com

  27. Posted December 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    “A characteristic of articles on “scientism” is their loud proclamation that there are other ways of knowing truth, combined with a complete failure to cite any questions that been answered by these other ways.”

    Here are a few questions that have been answered (to my satisfaction, at least) by philosophy, and not by science:

    1) Does god exist?
    2) Do we have libertarian free will?
    3) Does science tell us what’s true?

    The answers are “no,” “no,” and “yes,” respectively. The only way to answer those questions is through logical argumentation, the province of philosophy. Yes, the logical arguments for each of those questions will often draw from scientific facts, but you cannot get from those facts to those particular conclusions without some sort of logical argument to connect them. Of course, some people (e.g. Sam Harris), tend to lump logical argumentation in with experimentation as their definition of “science,” and if you define science that broadly, then scientism is entirely appropriate and justified.

  28. papalinton
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    At base, there are two forms of philosophy, ‘scientifically informed philosophy’ [SIP] and ‘scientifically uninformed philosophy'{SUP]. It seems to me SUP is just …. well, ….theology.

    SUP, continues in the tradition of its long-standing relationship with theology. Its underlying operant milieu remains largely predicated on (1)teleology, ” .. [a] philosophical account that holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature.” [All references Library] Theology carries that ideation further, by positing that a god is the ’cause’ of that teleology. And (2) superstitious supernaturalism. SUP is a highly speculative and suppositional form of philosophy at best, its contemporary intellectuals including: Freddoso, Geisler, Plantinga. Feser, WLC, Oderberg, Moreland, among others.

    In contradistinction, SIP, represents a philosophical trend that grew out of the enlightenment, when it cleaved as a separate discipline to that of theology, and grounding its operant system of study in the quantum of scientific evidence and knowledge. “The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but, with it, the entire set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/] Scholars representing this philosophical stream include, Drange, Dennett, McGinn, Oppy, Popper etc.

    And of course, there are a few fencesitters. For example, Nagel and Nöe reside somewhere on the fence largely unable to slough off the proclivity for imagining agency where there is none, and unable to intellectually check the pull of our evolved predilection towards unschooled and spontaneous notions of teleological intentionality

  29. markp@mail.com
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Please send a pdf of Peter Atkins’s essay called “Science as truth.” Thank you.

    Mark Phillippi

    >

  30. Randy
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I think scientism as it is described and defined by every one of its critics whom I have read to date is a strawman. I question whether there is such a thing as scientism. I acknowledge that there are science advocates out there who are perhaps a little overzealous in their support and advocacy of science, but this does not mean there is a packaged viewpoint called scientism. I question the existence of scientism because, and correct me if I am wrong, for there to be such a viewpoint would we not have to accept that science is a dogma? At its very roots science is, I think, just the opposite of a dogma. Sure, there can be and are people who state scientific conclusions with a dogmatic conviction. But this does not establish that science is a dogma. Likewise, there are advocates of science who defend science with what some describe as a scientism mentality. But this is an indictment of the individuals doing this and not of science as an enterprise.

    • Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Reductivism, whether it comes from religion or from science, tends to be internally consistent.

      Like privilege, it’s often devoid of reflexivity. Those who propose reductivist views, those who use their belief system as the One True Path to Real Truth™, perceive their own coherence, but reveal themselves to be unaware of the inconsistencies which make their arguments fallacious and specious.

      Again, this pattern applies to scientist zealots as to religious dogmatists. It doesn’t mean that science as a method is flawed, but it does cause harm to those of us who try to get a broader section of the population thinking critically about such issues. It also means little about religious dogma itself, as the version transmitted by ardent devotees is often unrecognizable from the version proposed by theologians.
      Merging thoughts with groups in which they’re held as true is quite common a fallacy. Displaced targets make for collateral damage on every side. (There is often more than two sides…)

      As my previous (but apparently unpublished) comment had it: we can wonder who’s building bigger strawmen…

    • Richard Wein
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Scientism is ill-defined, but I think broadly we can take it be an over-estimation of the breadth of applicability of science. Since excess (“over”) is implied, it has built-in pejorative connotations.

      Some people try to rehabilitate the term, and call their own position scientism. They have a broader than usual estimation of the applicability of science. Since they think their estimation is about right, and not excessive, their use of the word is not pejorative.

      I’m tempted to coin a pejorative term (“anti-scientism”?) to describe those who make accusations of scientism, since they have an excessively narrow estimation of the applicability of science.

      Sure, some of those accused of scientism make some mistakes, and maybe sometimes go too far. We all make mistakes. But I think there’s generally a much greater problem in society (and in philosophy) of people underestimating the applicability of science than of overestimating it.

      • darrelle
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Yes, exactly.

  31. Simon Spiegal
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    One of the things that supporters of scientism never deal with are the questions that don’t necessarily have definite answers but which are vital to our lives. Take for example:

    How should we live as a society?

    This is a question that philosophy has engaged with throughout it’s history. There have been some bad “answers” along the way, but everyone here with nothing but contempt for philosophy seem perfectly happy to enjoy the current fruits of philosophy’s labours while at the same time doing it down every chance they get.

    What are science’s answers to this question, btw? And I don’t mean how can science help if it is sitting on a huge bedrock of philosophy, I mean science from scratch, on its own, hand no longer held. Let’s hear it.

    • Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      Game Theory is our best attempt yet at answering your question. And, surprise surprise, it turns out that cooperation is the optimal strategy, but that blind trust opens you up to parasitism. You therefore need some sort of feedback mechanism that discourages cheating, but the more adverse said mechanism the worse everybody fares overall. Rather, you want to build frameworks in which honesty is automatically rewarded through positive feedback measures. Oh — and systems in which a default tendency towards altruism (but not blind trust) predominate tend to flourish better than selfish ones.

      Any of that sound familiar?

      b&

    • g2-d34147f3f4e571d41cd1577a51e70a35
      Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

      “How should we live as a society? What are science’s answers to this question, btw?”

      Science answers, “We should live as a society with indoor sanitation, cultivated crops, and antibiotics.”

      Never touch the fruits of philosophy any more myself. It’s got zero nutritive value, and I always find myself just as hungry again as I was before I swallowed.

  32. Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi! Could you send me the Atkins pdf? It’s behind a paywall, at least for me.

  33. caf
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    About one year ago, I almost subscribed to the New Atlantis, largely after seeing-but not yet reading-articles that they published on evolution and genetics.

    Well, then I read one of them and I did not subscribe. Here is one of those essays. Some of you on this blog may want to at least skim it:

    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/evolution-and-the-illusion-of-randomness

    (It’s one in a four part series)

  34. Posted December 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    §

  35. ernest
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    “Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.”

    I found myself screaming and cursing while plodding through Hughes’ essay. He’s basically railing against a pointless ‘ism’ that isn’t adhered to by any working scientist I recognize. Yes, scientists do make exaggerations, assumptions, and odd hypotheses here and there, but I don’t see how that dooms “science” from further providing us with plausible answers to questions old and new.

    The belief of scientism’s pervasiveness among practicing scientists is pure superstition. I find it strange how fashionable it is now to rally against enemies drawn out from thin air. This was a pointless essay against a pointless subject.

  36. Posted December 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure whether “scientism,” if it even exists (which I doubt), pretends to be something other than what it is.

    As First Deacon of the the Church of Gnu Scientism (Relapsed) I can assure you that it is as real as any other virtual construct in my brain.
    :)

  37. abandonwoo
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Is Scientism a member of the family Deepity, or is it the opposite? Scrupulous, rigorous methodology is not helping me in this instance.

  38. Sabunim5Dan
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,
    Please email me the Atkins “Science Is Truth” PDF … Thanks!
    I’ve been enjoying your blog for years; keep up the good fight!

  39. RW
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    This seems to be the only way to ask for a PDF of Prof. Atkins article. So… I’m asking.

    Keep up the good fight(s). WEIT is one of my favorite books.

  40. g2-d34147f3f4e571d41cd1577a51e70a35
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Central to philosophism is the grabbing of nearly the entire territory of what were once considered questions that properly belong to the caveman with the biggest stick.

    I think the fallacy is clear.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:12 am | Permalink

      I’ve always advocated the use of “philosophism” in these discussions. Two can play this game.

  41. John Syriatowicz
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    Hi Dr Coyne

    I would appreciate a pdf of the Atkins paper “Science as Truth”.

    Kind regards

    John

    _____

  42. Posted December 9, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    Before I start, I would like a PDF of that other paper, if you don’t mind.

    The big problem with Hughes’s essay is that despite his claim that there are other ways of apprehending truth beyond science—ways that involve the three areas of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology—he gives not a single example of a question that those disciplines have answered.

    I’ll give you a question from each discipline that I do think we have answered, moving from the least certain to the most certain:

    1) Metaphysics: Can you get something from nothing? Answer: No. There must be something there to be able to sensibly talk about things “happening”. We don’t know what that precisely means yet — ie what kinds of somethings are required, and how we might get original somethings — but there must be something that you can reasonably call a something before other somethings can happen. The recent work in physics from people like Hawking and Krauss simply confirms this, because they all need to insert a thing that really is a something metaphysically into their nothing to make it so that the other somethings happened, even if that’s just the laws of physics, and so in this case the scientific arguments simply support the philosophical answer.

    2) Ethics: Can you derive normative statements from descriptive statements or, to put it another way, can you derive a statement about what ought to be only from statements about how things are? No. No matter how many ises you toss into your argument, that does not in any way mean that that is how it ought to be. You need to evaluate those ises against some kind of value statement to see if they support that value statement, and value statements are all normative statements. Note that this holds regardless of whether normative statements are objective fact or simply subjective opinion; there still needs to be a value statement at the base before you can evaluate what is happening to see if it is what ought to happen. That value statement may simply be axiom, but it has to be there.

    3) Epistemology: Is it the case that all knowledge must be justified by empirical observations? No. As shown in the refutations of logical positivism, the statement “All knowledge claims must be justified by empirical data” is not itself a claim that can be supported with empirical data, or else it would be circular; you would be relying on the very thing you are trying to justify to justify itself. Thus, you run into what I am now calling the “Positivist Petard”: Either you claim that the statement can be known — but not empirically — and so it becomes self-defeating (known but not justified by empirical data, and therefore false) or else you concede that you do not know if that is true … at which point, at best, your underlying principle is unjustified and we have no reason to think it true.

    Now, you may wish to argue these, but if you do so you will have to argue for them strictly on the basis of science, and not philosophy, or else you’ll end up hoisting yourself on your own petard (justifying it to a level beyond opinion but not with science). And you also cannot use the broad definition of “science” here to claim that all philosophy is really science anyway, because here Hughes and you BOTH are drawing a distinction between the two fields.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      “…the statement “All knowledge claims must be justified by empirical data” is not itself a claim that can be supported with empirical data…”

      But that’s not a knowledge claim, it’s a RULE. In my opinion it’s not possible, and certainly not worthwhile trying, to entertain every truth-claim anyone cares to make without any evidence at all. If you disagree, feel free.

      Without empirical content, philosophy is not even entertainment.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        +1

        It’s odd that philosophers and theologians often pick up on this same supposed ‘problem’ with empiricism and science, but fail to acknowledge the utter emptiness of philosophy, or even the impossibility of engaging in it without an empirical interaction with the world.

        Experiments (empiricism at work) show that depriving the brain of senses severely prevents the normal development of the brain; and where would philosophers be without well developed brain.

        How can you even pose an ethical question, such as the trolley problem, without the empirical experience that demonstrates that people tend not to like it when to run them over, of choose to kill 5 instead of 1 when they are your only options, or that pushing fat people on to tracks may be uncomfortable for the pusher.

        The problem is that it is not often clear to philosophers that they are engaging in empirical investigation, even when thinking about subjects such as solipsism, because we are already experiencing our empirically discovered material selves in order to make the solipsist position a meaningful alternative. If we were already obviously solipsist minds we’d be wondering if in fact our solipsism wasn’t mistaken and that there might actually be some material reality out there. It’s the veracity of our empirical experience that makes us take it for granted, and then question it in philosophy.

        But the real issue is that this particular objection to empiricism is totally vacuous. If only philosophers would apply their critiques to their own fields with the same force they use when criticising science. When a philosopher says “science can’t explain everything” it would be more honest if they added, “but philosophy explains nothing”. When a theist says “science can’t explain everything” it would be more honest if they added, “but my theism explains nothing, and is totally a made up accumulation from the imaginations of the faithful”.

        • Posted December 10, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

          This strikes me as the equivalent of saying that when you do science you’re really just doing psychology since everything depends on the structure and cognition of the human brain. Yes, technically it’s true but it doesn’t say anything about what’s really going on.

          I argue that the questions I answered do not depend on empirical data in the same way as more traditional scientific questions do. Even if we should take what you say here as a serious commentary on this debate and a problem for philosophy, you have done nothing to show that the distinction I made is not valid.

        • Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

          verbosestoic,

          It’s true, there is a degree of psychology that goes into scientific investigations. We cannot detach our human nature, our brain-body systems, from our investigations, as philosophers might wish we could. But the point is that science is an attempt to overcome the psychological effects, particularly the fallibilities, of all human experience. The rigour of science is an attempt to compensate for the flaws. Philosophy does that too, but only with respect to thinking, how we think, what ways of thinking work. The difference is that philosophy is at a greater risk of making mistakes than is science because it does not explicitly acknowledge the importance of our natural empirical nature – no philosopher can do philosophy without being empirical at their very core. All philosophy is about the way the world is or about some aspect of how we interact with the world, but is always in the context of the empirical experiences of the world that the philosopher has gone through, just as for scientists. Both philosophers and scientists speculate about possibilities and attempt to reason about them. The significant difference is that scientists then intentionally try to test those speculations empirically, because reasoning about it alone is not enough.

          “I argue that the questions I answered do not depend on empirical data in the same way as more traditional scientific questions do.”

          Your answers do depend on empirical data, in just the same way that traditional scientific questions do. The problem is that this is not acknowledged, and the claimed source of the answers, if it were correct, would be insufficient. Our very act of thinking is based on the interaction of a physical brain with itself, it’s container body, and the wider environment.

          There are purely physically experiential life forms that do not have neurons let alone brains. They live entirely by those physical interactions. Humans and many other animals have neurons, and some have brains that can process environmental and internal data in what we call thinking and reasoning. But that thinking and reasoning is no less experientially tied to the physical world. Empiricism is really nothing more than what is essentially a totally physical interaction with the world, but specifically includes that reasoning capacity of the brain to reason about its physical experiences. And science is no more than a greater specialisation, a more rigorous form, of this empirical process. Philosophy, as perceived by many philosophers, focuses too much on just the thinking bit, as if it alone can discover knowledge.

          Your answer to the metaphysical question of getting something from nothing, your ‘No’, is based on your empirical experience of the world – you have come to believe, from experience and thinking about those experiences, that you can’t get something from nothing. I happen to think you are wrong; or at rather I don’t think you provide any justification for your specific answer. It all does hinge on what ‘nothing’ is, and basically (as I point out in a more detailed response on your blog), this is an open question in science. Basically I would ask (as I do on your blog) where is it written in any ultimate cosmological sense that you can’t get something from nothing? You can’t simple think your way to an answer, in the matter of what makes up a universe and how it works.

          The trouble with much philosophy is that it appears self-contained. Your statement that you can’t get something from nothing amounts to no more than an assertion that is then used as an assumption to make your point. You are declaring it so by definition, perhaps. But you haven’t discovered by empirical means that you can’t in fact get something from nothing.

      • Posted December 10, 2012 at 3:18 am | Permalink

        By “rule” here, I presume you mean “heuristic”, and my heuristic is “I look at the question and decide what counts as evidence, whether that’s empirical or otherwise”. And looking at the three things I claim we know but where you cannot use empirical evidence to justify that knowledge, it seems that my heuristic is better than yours unless you want to do nothing more than science … which is fair enough, but then it would be best if you not criticize the fields that want to find other knowledge and truths that aren’t so tied to empirical evidence for doing so.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

          If I want to know the ‘truth’ (or find out if I’m being fooled), I need and want to do nothing more than science.

          Any ‘more’ than that, and I’d be actively fooling myself. And as Feynman used to say, you’re the easiest one to fool.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Metaphysics: Can you get something from nothing? Answer: No.

      First, that is a physics question, as you yourself describe it.

      Second, the answer is yes. You simply define “nothing” as something that we don’t know the existence of. On the other hand we know two cases where whole universes comes out of well motivated “nothing”, the tunneling fluctuations of Krauss et al and the eternal multiverse.

      The latter may not even need initial constraints, so “nothing” would be actually nothing. It just is, in which case your notion is ill posed.

      Your philosophical opinion may be valuable to you, but it isn’t of any concern in regards to science facts.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        “It just is” – the multiverse, that is.

      • Posted December 10, 2012 at 3:29 am | Permalink

        First, it is a metaphysical problem, not a physical one. As I pointed out, what Hawking and the others have done is taking a physical nothing and claimed that they have solved the problem, but metaphysically that’s still a something, which is precisely what the metaphysical philosophy would predict: all nothings introduced to get around the problem will, essentially, be somethings.

        Second, again, the suggestions you make for “nothing” are metaphysically somethings. You cannot avoid the problem by redefining the terms. You can attempt to do what Krauss does and argue that the definitions are wrong or too strict, but you would need to actually argue that with a very strong argument that as far as I know Krauss doesn’t have, and simply saying “This is what nothing means in physics” will not work for a metaphysical question.

        Third, if you say “This just is”, then you have in fact taken the already existing philosophical answer of positing something that has necessary existence. That’s still a something, and so doesn’t impact the philosophical answer above. It also isn’t new, although you might have a new candidate. For me, if Hawking and Krauss had realized that they were not doing anything new but that this was a new and at least potentially scientifically/empirically verifiable “something”, what they said might have been an interesting addition to the debate. Alas, they didn’t realize that and didn’t stop there.

  43. Marvol
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Apart from everything else, the ‘Pay per View’ is quite the summary of everything that is wrong in modern-day academic publishing.

    Without institutional or other access, I am having to pay 25.00 USD to read 6 pages written in 1995, of which the PDF already exists and is waiting to be downloaded.

    And unlike in music or movies, I highly doubt that Prof. Atkins is getting a share of this payment.

    What a freggin joke.

  44. Posted December 9, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I see there are a number of responses overnight from people still not understanding that the trolley experiment is just a bad re-hash of Milgram’s signature work.

    So, here’s another way to look at it.

    Let’s start with a recap of what Milgram did.

    He recruited volunteers to participate in a psychology experiment. The recruits were told that the experiments were to determine the role of pain as a negative feedback response in learning. Two people would participate in the experiment, themselves and another; one would be the teacher and the other the student.

    The subjects were then told that they had “randomly” been assigned to be the teachers, and one of Milgram’s confederates had equally “randomly” been determined to be the student.

    The two were then separated, and the “teacher” was told that all further communication would be by intercom.

    Milgram then told the “teacher” to read a series of questions to the “student.” Every time the student got an answer incorrect, the “teacher” was to administer an electric shock as punishment, and to do so by pressing a button. Further, with each successive incorrect answer, the “teacher” was to increase the punishment by adjusting a dial upwards.

    The “student” at this point was just a recording that Milgram’s confederate had made earlier. The recording had a set series of correct and incorrect answers to the questions, and appropriate acting of pain responses in reaction to the pressing of the button.

    Basically all his subjects went along with the experiment so long as the shocks and the (recorded) responses were mild. And they all continued even as the shocks turned painful and the “student” started to indicate some distress. At Milgram’s insistence that the experiment must continue, most people continued well past the point that we would all consider torture, and a disturbing number even keep going after the “student” became unresponsive.

    With this experiment, Milgram demonstrated that most people actually have it within themselves to torture and even kill another so long as an authority figure (Milgram, in this case, in his white lab coat) tells them they must do so. And, because his experiment was so successful at establishing this fact and because of the trauma experienced by his subjects (the “teachers,”) ethics review boards have since then taken great pains to ensure that similar experiments are not repeated.

    Now, I’d like to propose a thought experiment, whereby we make some tweaks to Milgram’s original experiment. And I submit to you that, just as no review board would today approve of a repeat of Milgram’s original experiment, neither would they approve of any of these variations.

    #1: The subject, the “teacher,” is told that there are two “students,” not one. The “students” are working together in tandem and agree upon a single answer. When the “students” answer incorrectly, the “teacher” is to administer the shocks to both “students.”

    #2: As above, but the “teacher” will use a toggle switch to selectively shock, at the “teacher’s” sole discretion, only one or the other “student.”

    #3: The “teacher” is demoted to “assistant,” and Milgram now becomes the “teacher.” Milgram is in charge of adjusting the voltage and pressing the shock button, but the “assistant” must flip the toggle switch to decide which of the two “students” will receive the punishment.

    #4: One might easily suggest that the slow ramping up of the punishments helps de-sensitize the subjects into conformity. So, now, we drop the the student / teacher theme, and Milgram instead tells the “assistant” that he, Milgram, is about to electrocute one of two other experimental subjects, and it’s up to the “assistant” to flip the switch to decide which will die.

    #5: Recognizing that actually convincingly staging #4 would be a bit over-the-top, Milgram instead turns it into a “thought experiment.” He tells the subjects to pretend that he’s a mad Nazi scientist. He then proceeds exactly as with #4, complete with stage props and all, but the subjects know in advance that it’s all theatrics. The subjects are still urged to treat it seriously and convince themselves that it’s all real.

    #6: Milgram drops all the theatrics and just interviews the subjects, asking them to imagine the whole thing, again urging them to take it seriously and do their best to convince themselves that it’s real. Importantly he still tells them that they must flip the switch to decide who lives and who dies, and perhaps even asks them to act out the flipping of an invisible switch.

    #7: Milgram drops the mad Nazi scientist routine and instead tells the subjects that it’s a runaway trolley car hurtling down the tracks, and the subjects must decide whether they’ll flip the switch to kill the children on the stalled schoolbus or the fat man working on the side spur.

    Now, obviously, #7 is the trolley experiment, exactly as philosophers perform it.

    So, I ask the peanut gallery: do you still consider #7 to be an ethically defensible experiment, and do you still think that you’re learning anything other than what Milgram already did — that it’s not hard for an authority figure to get people to do the dirty work of killing?

    If you think #7 is hunky-dory, which of the preceding variations, if any, would you consider problematic? And which one is no longer about people’s willingness to commit atrocities on command, and which is instead about whatever it is that the trolley experiment is supposed to be about?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Gary W
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Now, obviously, #7 is the trolley experiment, exactly as philosophers perform it.

      Yes, and as least three commenters have patiently explained to you, the trolley experiment (your “#7″) is a completely different experiment from the Milgram experiment. That’s why you had to laboriously go through seven sets of changes to transform one experiment into the other. In the trolley experiment, there is no authority figure instructing the subject to inflict harm, and there is no choice that would avoid harm. The trolley experiment poses a moral dilemma between greater and lesser harms based on whether the subject chooses to act or refrain from acting. It is an experimental investigation of what moral philosophers call the “do/allow distinction.” The Milgram experiment, in contrast, is an investigation of the subject’s willingness to inflict harm in response to instructions from an authority figure. There is no moral dilemma involved in the Milgram experiment. The two experiments are testing two completely different aspects of moral thinking and action.

      do you still consider #7 to be an ethically defensible experiment,

      Yes, of course it is. It’s a thought-experiment. No actual lives are at risk. No one is in another room simulating screams of pain to make the subject think he is actually hurting a real person. No one is going to be traumatized by it. So what on earth do you think is unethical about the trolley experiment?

      and do you still think that you’re learning anything other than what Milgram already did — that it’s not hard for an authority figure to get people to do the dirty work of killing?

      Yes, of course you’re learning something else from it. You’re learning if the subjects are willing to perform an act that would cause harm in order to prevent a greater harm that would result from failing to act. It has nothing to do with the willingness to cause harm in response to instructions from an authority figure.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        In the trolley experiment, there is no authority figure instructing the subject to inflict harm, and there is no choice that would avoid harm.

        Thank you for so perfectly demonstrating that you still continue to be utterly oblivious to the lessons learned from the Milgram experiment.

        For your “there is no other choice” position is exactly what Milgram’s subjects fell back to when they kept pressing the button.

        You are trusting the experimenter, the authority figure, that there really is no other choice but to kill somebody. And so you do.

        Since you’re continuing to demonstrate your utter cluelessness as to how to behave in these sorts of situations, let me spell it out for you. You really should have learned this long ago, but you didn’t, so I’ll try to teach you.

        If you are ever presented with a real-world instance of the trolley car problem, do *NOT* touch the switch.

        Again, for emphasis:

        DO NOT TOUCH THE SWITCH!

        The problem presumes that you are an unprofessional and a bystander who just happens to stumble across the scene. As such, you are profoundly unqualified to interfere.

        (If you are, indeed, a professional, you should be well trained in how to act in such situations, and even better trained to avoid them in the first place. If not, get such training immediately and contact the appropriate regulatory agency if getting training poses any challenges.)

        Instead, your first and most important duty is to immediately locate a qualified professional to take control of the situation. Grab your cell phone, scream for help, jump up and down and wave to get the attention of the guy in the crane, whatever — get qualified help, and get it as quick as you can.

        If the qualified professional instructs you to do something, such as throw the switch, go ahead and comply to the best of your ability. But it’s the professional’s job to apply a career’s worth of training and experience to determine what the best (or least-worst) course of action is. You don’t have that training, you don’t have that experience, you don’t have that knowledge. You’re not qualified to make those decisions.

        (Imagine, for example, that, unbeknownst to you, the schoolbus is full of mannequins, the fat worker on the side spur is an actor, and you’ve just stumbled onto a movie set with carefully-concealed cameras. Congratulations! You’ve now just killed an innocent victim, whereas, had you been a qualified professional, you would have known not to kill the innocent.)

        Your second job is to assist in the ensuing investigation. Immediately after whatever professional you’ve contacted has indicated you’re no longer needed, contact the police and tell them everything. If OSHA or other inspectors show up, tell them everything. As soon as possible, before the next day, write down everything you saw and did (assuming you didn’t already do so as part of the official investigation).

        Even if the trolley winds up killing people, and even if the people it killed were not the group of people you would have preferred to see die, their deaths are not even remotely your fault or responsibility. They are entirely the responsibility of the trolley operators.

        But, of all the things you could do in the midst of a crisis, touching critical safety equipment without proper training or authorization is the worst possible thing to do.

        And, congratulations! The evil Nazi philosopher Milgram-wannabe has successfully convinced you to do exactly the worst possible thing you could do.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Gary W
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          For your “there is no other choice” position is exactly what Milgram’s subjects fell back to when they kept pressing the button.

          Nonsense. In the Milgram experiment the subject could choose not to press the button, and no one would be harmed. In the trolley experiment, someone will be harmed regardless of the choice made by the subject. That’s one of the critical differences between the two experiments that you keep ignoring.

          Still waiting for you to explain why the trolley experiment is “unethical.” No actual person is harmed. No one is deceived into thinking that an actual person is harmed. Everyone involved understands that the situation described in the experiment is hypothetical, not real. And yet you still absurdly claim that the trolley experiment is unethical.

          • Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            In the Milgram experiment the subject could choose not to press the button, and no one would be harmed.

            Dude, the whole flippin’ point of the Milgram experiment was that PEOPLE KEPT PRESSING THE BUTTON.

            In the trolley experiment, someone will be harmed regardless of the choice made by the subject.

            YOU ARE UNQUALIFIED TO KNOW IF THAT IS TRUE.

            And, just as people kept pressing the button after Milgram insisted they do you, you’re still flipping the switch EVEN THOUGH TOUCHING THE SWITCH IS CRIMINALLY IRRESPONSIBLE. And the only reason you would take this criminal action rather than do what you should (scream for help) is because the Milgram-wannabe philosophers are telling you that your only option is to fuck with the switch.

            TOUCHING THE TROLLEY SWITCH IS THE SAME AS PRESSING MILGRAM’S BUTTON.

            In both cases, the proper action is to ignore what the fake authority figure is telling you to do and instead get qualified professional help on the scene, stat.

            I truly do hope that you really are the pubescent boy in Mom’s basement you present yourself as. Your arrogant confidence that you know more about the operation of critical safety equipment than qualified professionals IS going to get somebody killed. If you’re just a kid, then at least you’ve got a chance to grow up and you’re unlikely to be left unsupervised in hazardous situations until you’ve done so.

            But if you’re emancipated, may the gods help all those around you….

            b&

            • Gary W
              Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              Dude, the whole flippin’ point of the Milgram experiment was that PEOPLE KEPT PRESSING THE BUTTON.

              No, dude, the whole flippin’ point of the Milgram experiment was to test the subjects’ willingness to cause harm under instructions from an authority figure. That is completely from the point of the trolley experiment, which was to test the subjects’ willingness to cause harm in order to prevent greater harm.

              YOU ARE UNQUALIFIED TO KNOW IF THAT IS TRUE.

              More nonsense. It’s true by the definition of the scenario. Either the subject chooses to divert the trolley, in which case it will strike one person, or the subject chooses not to divert the trolley, in which case it will strike five people. In both cases, someone will be harmed.

              Still waiting for you to explain why the trolley experiment is “unethical.”

              • Posted December 9, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

                It’s true by the definition of the scenario.

                Anybody who is actually qualified to act in a scenario similar to the trolley problem — say, a pilot of an airliner who might one day have to maneuver a damaged aircraft over a populated area — would laugh at your notion that a philosopher could define your competence in such a situation into existence.

                And then kick you in the nuts, hard, if you even hinted that you’d worm your way into reach of anything even vaguely resembling a critical control.

                b&

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        The Trolley experiment fails on so many levels:
        1) It’s completely implausible. Yes, it is simply a thought experiment, a ludicrous one, one designed to capture attention due to its bizarreness no matter what the results. It proves nothing.
        2) It doesn’t measure what people will do, it measures either what they think/hope they would do, or what they want other people to think they would do.
        3) The poser of the experiment represents an authority figure. It is quite likely that respondents are trying to figure out what the “right” response is rather than examine their own propensities.
        4) Behavioral economics has been demonstrating that people’s actual behavior is generally quite different from what they allege they would do/how they allege they would behave.
        5) The element of the “fat man” is blatantly bigoted. (And how much fat would it take to stop a trolley? Have we done that experiment? Huh? Wouldn’t that be an important datum to factor into one’s decision?)
        6) Most of these types of experiments are run on either college students (sometimes paid) or other volunteers; far from representative samples.
        7) By your own admission, there is no choice that does not cause harm. How is that not putting people in an impossible & deeply stressful situation?
        8) And ultimately, it is flawed. Choosing to harm no one does not automatically doom the unwitting five in favor of the one in any world other than that of the omniscient experimenter. Any number of things could happen to derail (!) the supposed outcome w/o deepsixing the sacrificial lamb. That all other outcomes are decreed impossible by the experimenter does not at all reflect the considerations that would be involved in any real-life situation that even remotely began to approach this fantasy.
        9) In the end, it’s just another dreamt-up scenario intended to appear to produce profound philosophical truths out of meaningless results.

        (Posted before reading subsequent replies to Gary W @ 11:58 EST.)

        • Gary W
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

          Your objections are all either wrong, trivial, or limitations of social science research in general, not this experiment specifically.

          1). It is irrelevant that the particular scenario described in the trolley experiment is implausible. The purpose of the experiment is to investigate the nature of our moral reasoning, specifically how people respond to a doing vs. allowing harm dilemma. As Tulse noted earlier, the findings are potentially useful in many areas of public policy.

          2) and 3). These are limitations of all social science research that relies on subjects answering questions. You can’t be sure that they are answering truthfully or that they won’t change their minds in a real-world situation. That doesn’t mean such research has no value.

          4). Even if actual behavior is “quite different” from stated behavior, that doesn’t mean the experiment has no value. But since you fail to quantify the alleged difference between them or provide any evidence your complaint here is very weak.

          5). I have no idea why you think this.

          6). This is not a flaw in the design of the experiment but would be a limitation in a particular implementation of the experiment. Like your points 2 and 3, acquiring representative samples is a potential problem in all social science research. It’s not a flaw in the trolley experiment itself.

          7). Because it’s a thought-experiment. No one is actually harmed. Everyone involved in the experiment understands this. Do you also think playing shoot-em up video games is an “impossible & deeply stressful situation?”

          8) The experimenter does not “decree all other outcomes impossible.” In the standard scenario as described, the likely outcome of diverting the trolley is to cause a single person to die (or at least to be seriously injured), and the likely outcome of failing to divert the trolley is for a greater number of people to die or be injured. Derailment or other outcomes are not “impossible,” just unlikely.

          9). This isn’t a serious complaint at all, just empty rhetoric.

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

            1). Results from implausible experiments with unrepresentative sample sizes and admittedly iffy responses hardly seem worth the time to perform them.

            2) & 3). Agree wholeheartedly with all but the last sentence. How can you possibly, beyond mere conjecture, determine a), that there is any value at all, given the problems you’ve just admitted, b) what that value is, and c) how much or little of it you have?

            4). Oh, this is definitely a discussion full of quantifiables! Not. Nonetheless, here’s a sample: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/04/shocking-experiment-money/
            Sorry for the popular source–avoiding paywalls.

            5). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12558204

            6). And rather than put some effort into getting rid of experimental flaws, lets just go ahead despite them. So scientific.

            7). So if experimentees are taking it completely lightly, completely academically, the results still reflect some moral calculus?

            8). Does not refute the fact that subjects are given an unrealistically limited choice of actions; as if this whole scenario were not already so impossibly far from any actual moral dilemma as to render any results extremely tenuous.

            9). GIGO.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 10, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              1. I’m not sure what an “unrepresentative sample size” is supposed to mean in this context. Perhaps you mean “unrepresentative sample.” You haven’t produced any evidence that the sample is unrepresentative.

              2 and 3. Because we have evidence that they have value. As I just told you, the same limitations apply to all social science research. Do you therefore think all social science is worthless? People can lie, people can change their minds, samples might not be representative, and so on. That didn’t prevent Nate Silver from using polling data to make highly accurate predictions about the outcomes of the last three general elections, for example. Unless you can produce evidence that these problems are so severe in the trolley experiment as to render it a “failure,” there is no reason to believe that they are.

              4, 5 and 6: I have no idea why you think your responses here address the problems with your original complaints that I previously described.

              7. I don’t know what “take it completely lightly, completely academically” is supposed to mean. The subject is presented with a moral dilemma and asked how he would respond. I’m not sure how else you expect researchers to investigate this kind of moral reasoning experimentally. I think the idea that the experiment is unethical because the subjects are asked questions about choices involving hypothetical harm is absurd.

              8. Your claim here is simply false. In the scenario described, there are only two possible choices: to divert the trolley or not to divert the trolley.

              9. Once again, worthless rhetoric.

              • Diane G.
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

                “Because we have evidence that they have value.”

                Do elaborate. Quantitatively.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

                I did, in the sentences immediately following the one where you stopped quoting. If lying by respondents and sampling limitations are the fatal flaws you claim them to be (without a shred of evidence), how come election polls allow us to predict election outcomes so accurately?

                Tell me, do you also believe that climate science “fails on so many levels,” on the grounds that it has to rely on grossly simplified computer models and simulations of the climate, instead of being able to do experiments on the real climate?

  45. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    No doubt there will be “questions that are beyond [science’s] ability to answer”, because the universe seems to be much larger than the finite resources (of time and space) that our observable universe provides for us to solve problems.

    So there is an “inherent” limit, or rather a locally set limit in a multiverse, re answers. But “inherently” re questions? Which specific questions would that be? Our cosmology for example, it observes and tests for an infinite universe more easily than a large but finite one.

    So again Hughes needs to provide examples of questions that he thinks of. A priori there isn’t any selection on the set of questions that we won’t try on or can solve. Except maybe as hinted at, that the really large questions may be easier to answer due to their large scope (symmetries). It is merely from a theological perspective that you can claim another selection.

    “Inherently”.

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    “I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance.”

    You got to love Atkins factsayings! Short and going for the throat of the matter.

    ways that involve the three areas of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology

    Well, in scientism ethics is observed to be useful in judicial matters, whereas metaphysics and epistemology are pure philosophy and now without any residual meaning.

  46. Rakesh Kaul
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    In response to your open question

    Self Awareness

    Knowledge of which requires both “science” and “consciousness” based techniques.

  47. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    1.
    scientism is a smaller fish to naturalism (I think). I never heard any faithiests criticize naturalism.

    2.
    I think (intuitively) that questions are more important than answers e.g. if the question is wrong, the answer will be meaningless. (I am sure we all here can name at least one famous numerical answer). I think this folds into what Atkins says about the invented problems of theologians.

    appreciate any criticism of those comments.

    just my 2 cents on this 251-comment thread that I apologize for not reading in minute detail.

    • Al Hiebert
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      ThyroidPlanet, when you say, “I never heard any faithiests criticize naturalism,” is that because you simply don’t get out of your naturalism bubble much? Have you read Washington Post this past Monday’s article “Humanism for Children”? See: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/humanism-for-children/.

      There are plenty of critiques of naturalism. Start with Alvin Plantinga’s 1994 “Naturalism Defeated” at: http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf)or Timothy O’Connor’s “An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” at: http://philpapers.org/rec/OCOAEA-2.
      Just Google “Criticisms of naturalism” for more.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        Well, since you asked, “Never heard any” is written as if we are talking at the pub, it means precisely what it means, that I never heard or read or seen or smelled or otherwise was aware – UNTIL NOW…..

        If it helps to think of me in a bubble, sure! Look at the perimeter of my bubble, ever growing, so proud of my bubble.

        thanks (I think).

  48. Posted February 18, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

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2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] the point. This struck me with particular force when reading some of the comments in responses to Jerry Coyne’s brisk dismissal of Austin Hughes’ essay “The Folly of […]

  2. […] as Truth” and which is also dismissively discussed by Jerry Coyne in his blog post “The folly of ‘The folly of scientism’”. (Coyne also praises Atkins’ essay and recommends it to those “militant atheists” […]

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