I am a big fan of the avuncular Eric MacDonald, our Official Website Uncle™, not only because he abandoned a position as an Anglican priest to become a “strident” atheist, but also because he fights for the right to commit assisted suicide, argues forcefully against the stupidities of theology, and, not the least, has been gracious and helpful in guiding me through my readings in theology. It is thus with some trepidation that I must take issue, as I have before, with Eric’s arguments against the sin of “scientism.”
In his latest post at Choice in Dying, “Getting things into perspective,” Eric warns against the dangers of scientism, which he defines as “the view that scientific knowledge, and scientific knowledge are all-encompassing and exhaustive of the entire scope of human knowledge.” He argues, as he has in the past, that there are “ways of knowing” beyond those used by science.
What areas involve those ways of knowing? Eric, arguing first that religion is not one of them, nevertheless sees two:
1. History. I quote:
it is commonly objected that historical knowledge is, in the requisite sense, scientific, since it depends upon evidence, and may even make predictions as to what we will find in the public record or in archaeological digs. For several reasons this does not seem satisfactory to me, since it is clear that our historical understanding of events changes over time. Gibbon’s history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, with its wealth of often reliable detail, is also quite clearly a product of its time. No one, while they might use and even confirm much of the factual material that is contained in Gibbon’s volumes, would write a history of the fall of Rome in quite the way that Gibbon does, with his particular social and political emphases. Histories of the First World War often, according to Hew Strachan’s The First World War, by failing to take into consideration the time and circumstances in which the Great War took place, also fail to understand why, at the time, this was considered to be, not an absurd and monstrous waste of life, but of the first importance for the future of civilisation; and he points out the paradox that results from this assessment of the Great War’s meaninglessness. . .
It is important to note that whether we look at the world in one way rather than another does not obviously depend on the factual evidence that can be brought to bear on the question of the correct interpretation or understanding of the events in question.
The question that arises for me on the basis of considerations such as this. . . is whether we have, then, in history, a “way of knowing” which is distinct from that of science? My own view is that it is the notion of “ways of knowing” that is the problem here, not the fact that there are different types of knowledge, all of which, to some degree, depend upon evidence, but none of which can be simply subsumed under science as the paradigm case of what we understand when we speak about knowledge or truth.
I think Eric is conflating here the facts of history with the interpretation of history. And yes, those facts can change with time, but so can scientific facts. Facts of history and science are both provisional, depending on the current state of knowledge and new evidence that arises. But this says nothing about whether empirical evidence, reason, doubt, and consensus about the evidence—in other words, the tools of science—aren’t the way to find out what happened in history.
Yes, I am construing science broadly here, as a “methodology for finding out truths about the universe,” and that methodology is pretty much the same whether one is a historian or a scientist. If you construe “science” more narrowly, as “the body of knowledge accumulated by scientists,” then yes, historical facts don’t come from science. But that misses the point. The way one finds out that Julius Caesar existed is pretty much the same way we find out that the supercontinent Pangaea existed—through historical reconstruction and tangible evidence.
Really, it matters to me very little whether one argues that history is a branch of science or not. What matters to me is that they use the same methods to establish what really happened in our universe. And of course how one views the relative importance of various factors in history is often not something subject to empirical adjudication, but is simply a philosophy or worldview. It is interpretation, not fact. So what?
2. Morality. I quote Eric again:
I do want to deny that religion, for instance, has anything resembling knowledge of the things about which it speaks. But I also want to claim, contrary to those who hold that science is the paradigm case of knowledge, that we can also have moral knowledge, and that, in terms of our knowledge about morality, it is morally wrong that people should be prevented by the state or any other organisation from asking for help to die when their suffering has become intolerable. I think that is an offence against the good, just as I believe that torture or deliberate cruelty in war are opposed both to duty, and to the rights of others, whether innocents or combatants, not to be subject to cruel and unusual treatment. But I do not think there is a “way of knowing” associated with those convictions, if by that is meant a particular methodology which is uniquely distinct from the methodological naturalism of science. Nevertheless, it is vital to understand that, notwithstanding morality’s relating to a domain of knowledge which is not simply continuous with science, or subject to the canons of scientific truth, it does not follow that rational grounds for accepting moral claims are not required by those who hold that something is or is not the right or the wrong thing to do.
None of us argue that rationality and evidence can’t inform moral claims. If you think abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, science can in principle investigate that. If you think that torture is wrong because in no case can the suffering of one individual prevent the suffering of many, that’s amenable to investigation, too. But what is not amenable to empirical investigation is the claim that “it is objectively wrong to allow people to commit suicide in certain circumstances.” To make that claim, you have to add another proviso, one that explains the “objective wrong”—and that is a claim that involves preferences that can’t be decided objectively.
For example, Eric may argue that assisted suicide is good because it relieves people’s suffering and has no down side for society, so in the main it is a social good. That’s a rational argument—and one I happen to agree with—but it still depends on defining “relief of suffering without detrimental social effects” as a “moral good.” Now the effects of allowing assisted suicide can be observed empirically, but the decision that what is “moral” depends on nonempirical considerations. Like Eric, Sam Harris takes it to be an objective question; for Sam, what is “moral” is “what increases well being.” But that itself is a subjective decision, and I can imagine some situations in which what we feel is moral actually decreases overall well being. (Because I generally agree with Sam, though, I think that in such situations one should reassess one’s idea of what is moral.). And then there is the thorny problem of agreeing what represents well being: how to weigh off the various and conflicting effects that an act has on society. That, too, may be a purely subjective matter, not capable of being adjudicated by empirical reason. How do you trade, for example, wealth against health?
I am starting to think that we should dispense with the idea of “moral” and “immoral” acts for two reasons. The first is because the notion of morality is implicitly connected with free choice, that is, with “free will” in the dualistic sense. I don’t think we have that kind of free will. And if one can’t choose one’s acts freely, then one can’t decide to be “moral” or “immoral.” Rather, as a consequentialist, I’d replace “morality” with what it really means for most people, “the overall effects of an act on an individual or society.” Thus an “immoral act” might better be seen as “an act that reduces societal well being.” There are some problems with that, too (two are mentioned above), but I won’t go into that now.
What disturbs me most about Eric’s piece comes near the end, where he levels the accusation that scientists can resemble ideologues, and science an ideology. This comes perilously close to what creationists say. I quote Eric again:
I take Steven Weinberg’s saying very seriously, that
“[w]ith or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion”. [see Wikiquote]
However, I would add: “or any other absolute ideology.” It seems to me that what people are calling and defending as scientism might itself be prone to being used in such ways. Indeed, anything which tries to draw a fence around truth, and to corral and confine it in ways that cannot be justified without contradicting the truth so defined, is in danger of creating an ideological view of the world which, in time, might well lead to inhumanity and evil.
And that is what worries me about the term that is so often heard from the defenders of science as the only source or domain of truth, that that claim itself is not a scientific one, and, as such, already takes the first step towards an ideological (dare I say?) idolisation of science. That is one of the reasons why idolatry has often been considered the original sin of religion, that it takes the limited human understanding of the object of its worship and obedience, absolutises that, and allows such an absolute to guide its beliefs and actions without qualification. Many people have said that Hitler’s social Darwinist ideal of the survival of the fittest, and the eugenic policies and racial theories that stemmed from that — and which led, in the end, to so many and such unimaginable atrocities – was perverted science, but, if so, it was perverted science of which scientists themselves were not entirely free, for scientists are as prone to quasi-religious absolutism as any other human being, for whom certainty or near certainty is always a temptation and a danger.
I would ask Uncle Eric here: do you really believe that? If so, could you name some of the scientists who are guilty of “quasi-religious absolutism”? Am I (or Richard Dawkins) one of them?
Eric is dead wrong here. Those scientists whom he views as scientistic absolutists have a love of art, music, and are prone to all kinds of emotional experiences that, for the nonce, don’t fall in the purview of science. I could not for a minute explain to you, using reason and observation, why I think “The Dead” is the greatest thing ever written in the English language. What we (or I) maintain is that the only way to find out what is real in the universe is to use the methods formalized by science: reason, observation, doubt, replication, and consensus.
And it is a base canard (duck + OH) for Eric to bring up Hitler in this connection. Eric really needs to read Gary Hill’s essay, “Fundamental flaws underlie the myth that Darwin influenced Hitler.” Had Darwin not existed, I am absolutely sure that the Holocaust would still have happened. All it took was antisemitism (that’s from religion, Eric) and politial ideology. The notion of genocide also is deeply religious (viz.,the Old Testament). If you want, you can throw in selective breeding as a “scientific” rationale for exterminating a supposedly inferior group, but artificial selection came long before Darwin. If Eric wants to maintain that scientists are ideologues who resemble the faithful, let him give examples, and not just a few, either! I deny that accusation, and think that the notion that “scientists are as prone to quasi-religious absolutism as any other human being” is a vile and baseless claim. Are we just as absolutist as, say, Southern Baptists?
At any rate, at the end Eric explains why he wants to include morality as a “way of knowing”:
. . . I sometimes fear that in the ready acceptance of a near apotheosis of science, some contemporary nonbelievers, including myself, are in danger of overestimating the reach of their thought, and are therefore in danger of establishing a form of dogmatism that it is essential that we avoid. One of my primary concerns is that this dogmatism is quickly adopting a form of moral relativism that will make it impossible with any integrity to continue to speak even of the moral importance of truth, let alone of anything else. If science is, as some people have begun to say, not only paradigmatic of knowledge, but its only domain, then our concern for the moral failures of the religions, which are, I believe, many, is only a point of view amongst many points of view, with no more authority than the power needed to enforce it. This would be an unparalleled disaster both for humanism, as a world view, and for humanity itself, which will seek moral guidance, and if it cannot receive it from nonbelievers, will find it in the religions that have already wreaked such moral havoc in the world. While, in my view, religion is epistemologically weak, it obviously continues to wield a degree of influence over the minds and hearts of billions that unbelief can only dream of. To throw away our greatest advantage, by overselling the value of science, as awesome as science’s accomplishments are, would be, to my mind, not only a great pity, but, more importantly, a betrayal of all that those who have surrendered religious belief have hoped for.
In other words, by denying that morality can be subject to the same empirical standards that determine truth in science, we scientists are enabling religion. In the end, if there aren’t objective moral truths, why not just turn to religion for guidance? (After all, religion does give the pretense of purveying objective morality.) But there is an alternative: secular philosophy informed by reason and empiricism. By arguing that morality is objective, Eric is adopting an insupportable position in the admirable cause of attacking the moral authority of religion. But you don’t have to go after science to deny that authority. The Euthyphro argument does just fine. We should just admit that, in the end, morality rests on certain propositions about what it is good to achieve, and those propositions can’t be decided using empirical evidence.
I am, frankly, disturbed that Eric is taking the tactic of many religious accommodationists by arguing that “science does bad stuff, too” (e.g., Hitler) and that “science, like religion, can be a faith.” Those arguments are quite familiar to me, but only coming from people like Jeffrey Small, Paul Davies, and John Polkinghorne. In the interest of overthrowing religion, Eric is adopting the same tactic that accommodationists and the faithful use to support faith: making arguments that drag science down to the level of religion.