Jason Rosenhouse is always worth reading (except, for me, when he writes about chess!), and his latest post at EvolutionBlog, “What is scientism?“, is a penetrating analysis of the slur that’s often levelled at atheists and scientists by accommodationist and believers. Jason was inspired by a peevish post from (surprise!) Michael Ruse, who, feeling that philosophy is being dissed in discussions about “ways of knowing,” argues that mathematics and morality are sources of “genuine knowledge.” Jason responds:
In the context of science/religion discussions, this definitional morass seems supremely unhelpful. It’s far too abstract. The real issue is very simple. If you are going to make assertions about how the world is, then it is on you to provide evidence for that assertion. Then people can decide for themselves if they think your evidence is any good. What science (defined in some reasonable, everyday sense) provides is a set of investigative methods that everyone regards as legitimate. In this it differs from religion, which points to sources of evidence, such as personal experience or the contents of holy texts, that are considered by many to be of highly dubious validity.
Jason, who of course is a mathematician, argues that much of mathematics is indeed part of science. “Pi,” for example, comes from empirical observations about the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. That’s true, of course, but that seems an exception, and much of mathematics is simply logical deduction from axions. Math is a useful tool for understanding the world, but with few exceptions the discipline itself, absent empirical observation, doesn’t tell us truths about the world. But Jason’s willing to buy that, too:
But just for the sake of argument let’s suppose we are absolutely determined to define our terms in such a way that mathematical knowledge is not part of science. Very well. Since I am happy to grant that mathematics provides knowledge, I will consider scientism to be refuted. In its place I will suggest a new notion called “scienceandmathematism,” which is defined as the idea that science and mathematics are the only reliable routes to knowledge. Happy now?
Jason argues, correctly, that while science can inform moral judgments, in the end statements about right or wrong (or, in Ruse’s case, whether one should feel ashamed of an action) are opinions, based on subjective value judgments. I think that’s true: even Harris’s justifiable claim that well-being should be the criterion for morality is not something that can be justified through science.
Finally, Jason takes on the really annoying claim (one made by theologians like John Haught) that because we can’t philosophically justify a priori the exclusivity of science as a way to find truth, then science devolves to a faith—like religion. (The object here, of course, is to drag science down by analogizing it to faith.) And Jason’s response is the one I always give:
But why can’t we justify scientism on scientific grounds? I would think there is a plausible argument to be made that our confidence in scientism is an inductive inference from the persistent success of science coupled with persistent lack of success of all other routes to knowledge. Ruse earlier defined science as a generalization from experience. Is that not precisely the basis for a confident assertion of scientism?
Certainly the distinctively religious ways of knowing that people have suggested over the years have frequently proven themselves unreliable. Philosophical and ethical analysis are certainly valuable activities, but it seems strange to me to describe them as ways of knowing. What they provide is not knowledge, but clarity.
Indeed. If you want to see a philosopher’s justification of scientism—in this case “philosophical naturalism,” read Barbara Forrest’s paper published in 2000 in Philo, “Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism: clarifying the connection.” The paper is free at the link; do read it.
Finally, in response to an almost incoherent statement by Ruse, Jason brings his piece to a close:
I don’t know what it means to say, “[I]f it isn’t science it isn’t genuine.” Genuine what? What I do know is that an assertion that science is the best, and perhaps the only, way of genuinely knowing the world is not a diss to the humanities. It certainly is not a rejection of mathematics, philosophy or ethical reasoning. And if you are going to argue that the assertion is false then it is your burden to point to a better way, and to indicate the knowledge provided by that alternate method.
There can be no knowledge about the universe that doesn’t derive from reason and empiricism, or that can’t be tested by empirical observation. Broadly construed, that’s science.