Uncle Eric goes all anti-scientistic, argues for “ways of knowing” other than science

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 SmallPaul 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.


  1. gbjames
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink


  2. Posted February 17, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Instead of using the terms “ethical” and “unethical” or “moral” and “immoral”, I use “helpful” and “harmful”.

    • Notagod
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      But, helpful and harmful to what? The person doing the assessment or to the situation or people being assessed?

      So far I have settled on “ethical” because I take it to imply that the assessor must not set their own enhancement as a guide in determining what is helpful or harmful.

  3. Posted February 17, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Arguing that ‘science does bad stuff’ is nonsense. Eric should know that.

    Science is a process. It is a useful tool. Sort of like a hammer.

    Every day millions and millions of these useful, and simple, tools are used for benign purposes which we might call ‘good.’

    But, every now and then, one of those hammers is used for something we might call bad. Like bashing in the head of our graduate advisor, like Theodore Steleski’s hammer, because we were crazy.

    Assigning ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is part of the religious experience so long encultured in our society that it is as ubiquitous as the air we breath.

    Even guns, themselves, are not ‘bad.’ I think they’re stupid and allow, ever too easily, stupid, bad and hot-headed people to do terrible things. But the gun, as a machine, itself does neither good or bad.

    (And, yes, I am for gun control. Something that dangerous should require a long and arduous training and back-ground check process consisting of class-room training, range training, a pass/fail exam coupled with a spotless criminal record, thorough back-ground check and a mental health exam — like Japan, plus a 30-day-waiting period to obtain.)

  4. Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Morality can be provisionally objective in practice (for the sake of social flow), but this moral template should be subject to adjustment pending new insights. I prefer the term “pragmatic ethics.”

  5. Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    To the extent that the academic study of history is not a science and therefore a “different way of knowing,” though true in a limited sense, it is an indictment of the field. All too often, historians, especially religious historians, when challenged with the more-than-questionable nature of their methods (particularly literary analysis of centuries-old documents about millennia-old events), will whine, “But, if we were to hold history to the same standards as the hard sciences, then we wouldn’t know anything at all about history!”

    The truth, of course, is that we really don’t know a great deal about history, and pretending otherwise no more makes it so than pretending that zombies like having their intestines fondled means Jesus wants you to drink his blood.

    And morality?

    Morality is a close cousin to economics. It can help you understand what sorts of strategies are more likely to lead to success and why that should be so, but it won’t necessarily tell you exactly how many shares of which stock to buy, or the exact perfect percentage for a tariff. Maybe someday we’ll get to that level of precision, but we’re still a ways off when it comes to weather and climate, so I won’t be holding my breath.

    The only ways in which morality is an “other way of knowing” is that the modern form of the field is still relatively young and — like history — still heavily contaminated by religious propaganda.



    • Posted February 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      That’s precisely what bothers me about offering history as an example of “another way of knowing.” When rigorous methodology is feasible, it’s a science. When rigorous methodology isn’t feasible, history is not demonstrated to be “another way of knowing,” it’s demonstrated to be a “way of making informed guesses.”

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. It doesn’t help that “knowing” can be interpreted as external (“Here is a truth. That person knows it”) or internal (“I just _know_ that is true.”)

    • Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      There are good defenses of history (better: historiography) as science in both Bunge, _Social Science Under Debate_ and Windschuttle (groan) _The Killing of History_. The latter also includes a defense of history as literature, which as might be inferred is not regarded as being incompatible.

      Also worth reading on this theme is Evans, _In Defense of History_, which is slightly less “scientistic” – but I don’t regard that as a bad thing either.

  6. Jonathan Houser
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I still maintain that as long as one can say that an idea is true or false, then one has to acknowledge that philosophy and/or mathematics are ways of knowing. If somebody wants to dispute that claim, then it leads to a quick catch twenty two that to insist that the previous statement is false is not a scientific claim, but an epistemological claim, that is to say a philosophical one, and if one “knows” that the aforementioned claim is false, then they know something by means other than science.

    Mathematics especially provides a whole world of knowledge that isn’t scientific, but logical. We “know” that a derivative runs tangent to the curve of a function, but that isn’t a “fact” about the universe. That is a “fact” about a logical idea (unless you are one of the few weirdos that hold that numbers are “real” things in the universe). And yet we “know” this fact about calculus to be true. If you claim that it isn’t true, then unfortunately you have stepped back into the realm of philosophy to gain knowledge, not science.

    As long as we argue and debate on matters of logic and ideas, and not just objective facts about the universe there will be other ways of knowing (and no religion is not one of them.) Mathematics and philosophy, closely related, will always be a means of informing our knowledge. The only way out of this, is not to just broadly define science as “anything evidence based” but to redefine “knowledge” as being “anything known based on evidence.” But at that point it’s just a tautology created to rig the game in science’s favor.

    I would like to add, that this isn’t a scary idea, and it doesn’t give room to the religious or faithiests to insert god or some importance of religion into the world. God is and always will be a scientific claim, not a philosophical one (no matter how much theologists would like to claim otherwise), and religion still doesn’t provide anything that can’t be gotten through art, literature, community, and ethical philosophy.

    • Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink


      Definitely. I think another way to put your first point is that any scientific justification of science is circular, and any anti-philosophy position is self-defeating.

      (Indeed, philosophers often cite mathematics as a realm of a priori, non-empirical knowledge, as I’m sure you know.)

      A few philosophers would say that whether God exists is a philosophical claim; they think that God can be proven a priori. (See for example Anselm’s ontological argument and Plantinga’s modal ontological argument.) But most philosophers, and indeed I think most theist philosophers, reject those arguments.

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        @Tom & Jonathan:

        Is mathematics an a priori realm of knowledge? I could be waayy off base – not a mathematician – but it seems to me numbers would be meaningless and useless if they didn’t correspond to at least theoretical and abstract referents. After enough experience dealing with numbers as representations of actual things, we were able to extrapolate logically to things like calculus etc.

        Does this seem crazy?

        • jimroberts
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          Mathematicians, like theologians, make stuff up. But when a mathematician makes stuff up, he also makes up rules which the stuff will adhere to, and (if his stuff is sufficiently interesting) other mathematicians will check that his further claims really follow (according to rules which mathematicians have made up) from his initial claims.
          A physicist might then say, “These events which I observe in the universe seem to behave like the stuff this mathematician made up.” He will then do some more checks, and maybe say, “Mathematicians have given me a model for this aspect of reality.”
          If however future physicists find that this model is inaccurate in some way, they will look for a better model, either by acting as mathematicians themselves, or by recruiting mathematicians to help them.

          • Posted February 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

            Again, I’m prepared to be wrong here, but is that really the direction of flow?

            Surely we must first have observed that this group of rocks, let’s call it “two”, plus that group of rocks, let’s call it “three”, always made a certain other group, let’s call it “five”.

            The rest is extrapolation.

            Do mathematicians really just make stuff up, totally de novo?

            • Jim Sweeney
              Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

              Mathematicians do make some stuff up, but certain relationships are inherent in certain abstractions. Two, three and five have various possible relationships, but we find addition and subtraction more broadly useful than others and so they form the basis for arithmetic.

              The axioms of geometry were chosen to approximate the world as we observe it. Most alternate choices would produce less useful or less definite variant geometries.

              Some of the stuff mathematicians just make up because they find it interesting eventually turns out to be useful, like group theory and non-Euclidean geometry, but not all.

              It’s been said that mathematicians tend to be Platonists, regarding their field of study as something “out there” waiting to be discovered.

            • jimroberts
              Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:51 am | Permalink

              “Do mathematicians really just make stuff up, totally de novo?”

              Mostly, no. They generally want to make up stuff which will interest other people, so inventing something which will be useful in some way is a good way to go.

            • Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

              But what about water drops on a pane of glass? Do not confuse addition with mereological operations like juxtaposition, etc.

        • Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

          Hi musical beef,

          I agree that numbers-as-concepts are much more useful if they correspond to numbers-as-actual-things-in-the-world. I think that makes math a realm of a priori knowledge, though, because these numbers, if they exist (mind-independently), don’t seem at all as if they are physical, spatiotemporal, material objects. So it’s not clear how we could know about them.

          My guess is that we notice that there are different amounts of things in the world, and infer (a priori) that numbers exist. And then we can perform a priori operations on them, discovering that necessarily, 2+2=4, etc.

          • Posted February 18, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

            Numbers are fundamentally symbolic representations of relative quantity. We are aware of quantity because things come in quantities, can be better described and understood in quantities, can be tested for equivalencies in quantities, and used in a host of human activities to very practical, empirical effect. To suggest that this foundation of math – a symbolic representation of quantifiable relationships we encounter in reality – is somehow magically exempt from reality’s arbitration and adjudication of its truth value (in order for it to be another way of knowing when applied to describe the reality we share) is not justified. Math – no matter how theoretical and pure we might wish to believe it to be – never has and never will exist in some separate vacuum unrelated to its roots of symbolic representation of quantity found in reality . Remove reality (in order to claim math an a priori source of knowledge), remove meaning of the symbols (thus negating any claims to ‘knowledge’). It’s just that simple. And that’s why math is an important component in the method of science, in the gaining of knowledge about how reality is.

            The universe is amendable to mathematical description not because of coincidence or some mysterious and unexpected order but because math’s roots are firmly planted in relationships we find in and adjudicate by reality.

  7. Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    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.

    My instant response would be disagreement. Yes, science is in the “is” question business; but engineering is in the “ought” question business.

    (Leaving aside whether engineering is religion, anyway.)

    • Jim Sweeney
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      No, the “ought” comes from marketing. Engineering provides the “how”.

      In my limited experience, the religion is provided by manufacturing, which is not to say that testing of prototypes is not an occasion for prayer.

  8. MAUCH
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    It’s all fine and dandy to rail against science as the only way of understanding but there are often problems with the other disciplines. Any discipline that makes a claim for having true understanding will still have to test it against the real world. That’s what science does and if the other disciplines feels there is no need to do that then all they are doing is engaging in irrelevant flights of fancy.

    • Jonathan Houser
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      This presumes all knowledge has to do with the real world. Mathematics doesn’t need to test anything against “the real” world, it’s just very convenient that so much of math is applicable to the real world. Mathematics only requires rigorous logical proofs though, and at no point does a mathematician say “well your proof looks sound, but lets run it by the physics department to see if it is really true.”

      This is again showing that the real problem isn’t that we are defining science too broadly, but that we are defining “knowledge” too narrowly.

      • Jonathan Houser
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        actually, just to add one note to that, it is interesting that even though mathematicians never say “the proof is sound, but lets give it to physics department to see if it’s true,” theoretical physics often relies on mathematics to deduce if something is probably true and then test it against the real world.

        Since they do need “knowledge of the universe” though, the goal is always to find a way to do the experiment, and confirm. But it is interesting to note, that they trust the non-empirical knowledge of mathematics so implicitly that they look to it as a guide as to what is probably true and false about the universe.

        • Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          Assuming science is a method to investigate reality and have its empirical considerations adduced from and adjudicated by reality, then whatever follows this method is part of science and not some ‘other’ way of knowing. Mathematics and philosophy both play an important role in this method. But neither is separate from it if they are trying to describe the reality we share. As soon as this claim is made, then any philosophical approach or mathematical relationship applied to reality means we’re right back to using science.

          • Jonathan Houser
            Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

            This is hubris. Hmm, so something is knowable by another means? Well I guess whatever means that is MUST be science! Maybe science is a part of philosophy and mathematics and not the other way around? This is the part that annoys me with scientism. It can’t simply cede ground to any other discipline and simply states that anything that is known must have been known through science. Thanks philosophers and mathematicians. You weren’t really doing anything other than helping scientists do science.

            • Daniel Engblom
              Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

              You say this like it’s a bad thing, like you’re annoyed that people are agreeing with you, but instead of separating it, they say it’s part of science – When you clearly do not want these other branches to be a part of science. There you go, using the word “scientism” sneeringly, frustrated that you cannot clearly say that these disciplines do not belong within the same tent as the rest do, but they do, and instead of buying into the same negative image of science and making it worse, you could try the positive and constructive approach of showing what a rich tool and method science is in gaining knowledge.

            • Notagod
              Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

              That’s kind of the point though. It’s scientific methodology that needs to be applied to determine what is factual or true in the real world. Call it something else OK, but testing and replication of testing by other parties is still part of the methodology used by science. If that methodology is used in other fields of study find but, it is formalized within scientific study. Scientists use math too so should scientists be offended that the study of numbers used in a scientific endeavor is called math? I don’t think mathematicians should feel slighted, its just that truly the methodology was formalized within the scientific field of study. If you can come up with better methodology perhaps we can call that Houser methodology, then math and science and whatever else can use Houser methodology to determine the reliability of truth and knowledge claims.

            • Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

              So, Jonathan, are you seriously suggesting in your rush to condemn scientism that claims about reality produced by philosophy and mathematics are rightly and properly exempt from empirical evidence, reason, doubt, and consensus?

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

                “mathematics… exempt from empirical evidence”?
                That’s exactly right, and exactly why mathematical truth, which is a priori, is not scientific.
                Of course there is a link: there is no science without mathematics. But there is certainly mathematics without science.

              • Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

                @ logico

                As I wrote above, I’m not convinced mathematical truth is in fact a priori.

                How are the, granted very intricate and complex, recently developed areas of mathematics not the end of a long chain of extrapolation from arithmetic: that is, math that you can verify empirically, heck, that is derived from and descriptive of physical phenomena?

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

                The pattern of scientific progress has often involved apparently useless areas of pure maths finding unexpected application in physics (or in theoretical physics). The great mystery is why the universe is so amenable to mathematical treatment. Google “The unreaonable effectiveness of mathematics” to open that can of worms. A more subtle point is that nature only approximates – very, very closely – to mathematical laws. Virtually all (I think) of the Laws assume the infinite divisibility of space and time, but this breaks down – ultimately, at he Planck scale. An assertion along the lines of “y = f(x) for all practical purposes” is useful for an engineer or physicist but useless for a mathematician. How can you prove anything based on such an incomplete formula?

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        Okay. I couldn’t resist.

        “Is knowledge knowable? If not, how do we know this?” — Woody Allen

  9. Les Kaufman
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I agree with Jonathan. Also, there would be some benefit to focusing on the realm of knowledge about the fascinating messes inside our heads, which is where morality, belief systems, subjectivity,and all manner of other interesting and dangerous beasts roam. They are in there and have a real existence as mental constructs. The process of their emergence and their effects upon our interactions with others and our environment is a valid area of scientific study, but a rather recalcitrant one.

    • Notagod
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      I submit that you are using methods that are used by scientists to determine that those mental constructs exist. Which isn’t the same as determining if those mental constructs are true or false which also would be best tested using methods that have been formalized within the scientific field of study.

  10. Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I think a part of people’s objection to the idea that science is the only way of understanding is pique arising from interpreting that as “only scientists are capable of discerning truth”. If one says instead: “the only way of obtaining factual knowledge about the world is by going out and checking it against evidence” (much as David Hume did), then that would be probably be less controversial, since it doesn’t suggest that knowledge is confined to a single discipline.

    • Notagod
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      The scientific method (or simply scientific method) is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.

      It isn’t just about going out and getting evidence, that’s only one part of it.

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        Yes of course: there is replication of results, peer review etc. But I think the central point is that knowledge outside of axiomatic (a priori) reasoning is empirical:

        “If we take into our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” (David Hume)

        • Howard Kornstein
          Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:35 am | Permalink

          What a bloody good quote! Thanks for that Roq.

        • Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

          Except Hume missed the great rationalist component to science – the invention of hypotheses and systems of same – theories.

          Note also that “school metaphysics” does not rule out all metaphysics. This is important because it (suitably unpacked) shows a glimmering of the IMO correct thesis that the most general of scientific theories shade into metaphysics and cannot be easily discerned from them. (A great example, albeit a semi-contentious one, is automata theory.)

  11. Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t think there is a way of knowing that ain’t scientific, ie that involves checking of evidence, observation and consensus, to claim otherwise is a gross misconception on how we get to know something.

    Designating things as good and bad have a religious tinge to it and I think most people fail to see that these designations are relative. The person committing the act doesn’t in his/her mind think himself doing something bad, they couldn’t have acted differently. It is to the observer or the person affected by a particular act that sees it bad or good.

  12. Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink


    I love posts such as these. I think I agree with pretty much everything you say here (!). You make a lot of important points; I’ll just mention some places to elaborate.

    1. Subjectivity: You may be using the term in different ways from others. Take the claim,

    (C) Happiness is better than suffering.

    That can’t be fully decided empirically, as I think you recognize. It requires an a priori or intuitive judgment. But I don’t think that means it’s “subjective”; in philosophy that usually means that the truth of the claim in question depends on someone’s mental states or attitudes. And many ethicists would disagree with that about (C) and many others: they would say that happiness just is better than suffering, no matter what anyone believes about it–happiness is objectively better than suffering in the same way that there are objectively more protons in a helium atom than in a hydrogen atom.

    2. ‘Moral’ and ‘immoral’: Actually, some philosophers have agreed with you here, for precisely your reason. They think that we should dispense with morality (‘right’ and ‘wrong’) and speak only in terms of axiology (‘good’ and ‘bad’). There’s a lot of room for further disagreement, of course, especially about free will, but we don’t have to get into that here.

    3. “… the only way to find out what is real … is … reason, observation, doubt, replication, and consensus.” Many would disagree that reason alone–logical deduction, say–is a way of discovering truths such as the above (C). More generally, they would say discovering such truths requires an appeal to intuition or insight, not reason. This might just be a disagreement, though, about how we use the term ‘reason.’

    4. Science based on faith?: I agree that science and religion are fundamentally different. I think the ultimate justification for science is philosophical (and non-scientific), but there is no ultimate justification for faith-based positions such as religion. You’ve mentioned before that you don’t think scientists care as much about ultimate justifications. Maybe some do and some don’t, but I would argue that if there is no ultimate justification, then it’s really not clear how it’s not ultimately faith-based.

    • Myron
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Axiology: This is the philosophical study of value. Normative theory concerns moral requirements and substantive accounts of what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. Axiology is not directly concerned with normative issues, but with the nature and status of values. It addresses questions such as whether moral value is objective, whether value is found in states of affairs or in actions, the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value, and whether value is an object of cognition.”

      (Jacobs, Jonathan A. Ethics A–Z. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. pp. 19-20)

    • Gary W
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      they would say that happiness just is better than suffering, no matter what anyone believes about it–happiness is objectively better than suffering in the same way that there are objectively more protons in a helium atom than in a hydrogen atom.

      Huh? We know there are more protons in a helium atom than in a hydrogen atom through observation. It’s an empirical fact. How do we know that happiness “just is better” than suffering? And what exactly does “better” mean here? “Better” by what standard of “betterness?”

      Many would disagree that reason alone–logical deduction, say–is a way of discovering truths such as the above (C). More generally, they would say discovering such truths requires an appeal to intuition or insight, not reason. This might just be a disagreement, though, about how we use the term ‘reason.’

      I think it is. What are intuition and insight, if not kinds of reasoning?

      • JT
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        “How do we know that happiness “just is better” than suffering?”

        It cannot be proved, of course, it must be accepted. It is a presumption which, I think, all sane people would agree upon. The medical sciences take it as an axiom that health is better than sickness. The fact that these terms can be difficult to define has in no way hindered the progress of medicine. I’m borrowing heavily from Sam Harris here, but, just like in medicine, morality must also rest upon certain presumptions which may be difficult to define.

        • Gary W
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          It cannot be proved, of course, it must be accepted. It is a presumption which, I think, all sane people would agree upon. The medical sciences take it as an axiom that health is better than sickness. The fact that these terms can be difficult to define has in no way hindered the progress of medicine. I’m borrowing heavily from Sam Harris here, but, just like in medicine, morality must also rest upon certain presumptions which may be difficult to define.

          You’re defining “better” here in terms of subjective preference (people prefer happiness to suffering, people prefer health to sickness). But the claim was that happiness is “objectively better” than suffering, in the same way that “there are objectively more protons in a helium atom than in a hydrogen atom.” That’s not a claim about subjective preference, it’s a claim about objective truth. How do we know it is true that happiness is “better” than suffering?

        • Posted March 2, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

          The claim that happiness is objectively better than suffering is a meaningless language construction. This kind of incoherence arises when trying to use relative terms as if they were absolutes and it’s a confusion that’s at the heart of much philosophy and moral reasoning.

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Hi Gary W.,

        Thanks for your comment.

        We know that happiness just is (objectively (mind- and attitude-independently)) better than suffering because it’s obvious. And obviousness is evidence, at least prima facie evidence. The details are a bit too complicated to give an adequate treatment here, but I could recommend several books that defend that position. One basic approach is to point out that at bottom, any argument for anything must appeal to obviousness or intuition, and no argument against (C) would have premises that are all as ultimately obvious as (C) itself.

        (Compare: We know that there are more protons in helium than in hydrogen ultimately through observation. Why should we trust observation? Well, it’s just obvious that we should.)

        In any case, if intuition is a kind of reasoning, then I’m happy to say that we learn ethical facts through reason.

        • Gary W
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          We know that happiness just is (objectively (mind- and attitude-independently)) better than suffering because it’s obvious.

          No, that’s not obvious. It’s obvious that people prefer happiness to suffering, but preference is not the same thing as “objectively better.” Someone may prefer to believe that the earth is young, but the objective fact is that the earth is old. You still haven’t defined “better” as you are using that word here.

          Compare: We know that there are more protons in helium than in hydrogen ultimately through observation. Why should we trust observation?

          Because we can’t make any sense of the world without it.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        How we know that ‘happiness’ is more preferable than ‘suffering’?
        This is simple – by observation.

        We can observe that majority of individuals of certain species of animals prefer some things (are attracted and tend to repeat the experience) and detest others (are repelled by certain stimuli) while expressing certain behaviors. We label these behaviors ‘happiness’ and ‘suffering’. The fact of these behaviors are observed and statistically analyzed is a FACT and this factual information can be used as a base to propel the ethics. Ethics have factual basis and can be defined by scientific terms.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

          Yes, such facts exist, but they are facts about anthropology and human psychology — i.e. about what people prefer — not about the objective value of happiness and suffering. We don’t need to assume the independent existence of objective values in order to make sense of such preferences.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink

            We don’t need to assume the independent existence of objective values in order to make sense of such preferences

            because of evolution.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      If by “intuition” you mean some sort of pre-rational instinctive or gut-level judgment, then it seems to me that when you say something like “Intuition tells us that happiness is better than suffering,” what you’re really saying is “Natural selection has programmed us to believe that happiness is better than suffering.” At which point we’re no longer talking about the objective value (whatever that may mean) of happiness or suffering; we’re talking about their pragmatic utility as survival strategies. The only objective facts here are biological or anthropological ones: humans societies tend to believe X; belief X tends to promote reproductive fitness better than belief Y.

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t that “pragmatic utility” an objective fact?


        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

          Yes it is, and I acknowledged it as such (“belief X tends to promote reproductive fitness…”).

          But the fact that a belief is useful doesn’t make the content of that belief objectively true. In Galileo’s day, geocentrism was a useful belief, and heliocentrism a dangerous one.

      • Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Hi Gregory,

        Thanks for your comment.

        There are many problems with evolutionary explanations for ethical intuitions, problems that would take us far beyond the comment section of a non-blog.

        Here’s one basic response. Consider claim (C) again. The evolutionary argument against the objective truth of (C) looks something like this:

        1. The theory of evolution is true.

        2. If the theory of evolution is true, then the best explanation for any trait we have is that it evolved.

        3. Therefore, the best explanation of our ethical intuitions is that they evolved.

        4. If some intuition evolved, then probably, it is not accurate.

        5. Therefore, probably, the ethical intuitions that support the objective truth of (C) are inaccurate.

        For my part, claim (C) is extremely obvious. It is far more obvious than (4), noticeably more obvious than (2), and even a bit more obvious than (1). Any presumably, any arguments for (1), (2), and (4) will ultimately, at bottom, have to appeal to obviousness as evidence. In turn, I’d like to see those arguments, and whether their premises are ultimately more obvious than (C).

        • jimroberts
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

          Where did “4. If some intuition evolved, then probably, it is not accurate.” come from? Surely
          4a. If some intuition evolved, then probably, it is accurate.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

            ‘4’ comes straight from some theologian. Note that any argument depending on it treats ‘accuracy’, fallaciously, as a binary property.

            • Chris
              Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

              4 seems like a complete non sequitur to me.

          • Posted February 18, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

            Hi jimroberts,

            Without (4), evolution doesn’t provide any evidence against ethical intuitions, does it?

            (For the record, I reject (4) as well. I’m just trying to reconstruct the evolutionary argument against trusting ethical intuitions.)

            • jimroberts
              Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

              Hi Tom,
              “Without (4), evolution doesn’t provide any evidence against ethical intuitions, does it?”

              I agree. In spite of my replacement with “4a. If some intuition evolved, then probably, it is accurate”, I do accept that something that evolved, even evolved by selection rather than genetic drift, might not even be useful, let alone optimal, in the different circumstances we live in today. I don’t know the evidence, if any, relating to how social our ancestors before the split from chimp/bonobo were, but it seems reasonable that they were living in largish groups as chimps and bonobos do, and evolved morality in favour of taking care of kin and of reciprocal altruism should have been present. More data about the behaviour of chimps/bonobos in the wild would be useful.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

          I’m fully prepared to believe that specific evo-psych just-so stories that may have been proposed as “explanations” of moral intuitions may be unsupported, factually wrong, or otherwise problematic.

          I’ll also grant that specific moral instincts with which evolution has equipped us may be inappropriate to our modern world or lead to judgments that may be inconsistent with our more deliberative moral reasoning.

          However I don’t see how one can reasonably dispute the idea that our moral intuitions — by which I mean the self-evident moral axioms from which moral reasoning begins — are products of evolution, like everything else in our brains. Where else could they have come from (once you rule out God)?

          As for your proposition (C), it seems to me its obviousness has less to do with the alleged objective value of happiness and suffering than with the definitions of happiness and suffering. Happiness is, by definition, pleasurable. Suffering is, by definition, unpleasurable. Pleasurable things are, by definition, more desirable (“better”) than unpleasurable things. Unpacked this way, (C) reduces to a tautology, and that’s why it seems obvious to you.

          My version of point 4 would be that if some intuition evolved, then it’s probably useful within some limited domain, but we should be very careful about applying it outside of that domain. This is why I think it’s a mistake to take moral heuristics that worked reasonably well in tribal society and generalize them as “objective” moral truths that can stand on their own, free of any social context. The very notion of “objective” or “universal” moral truths is itself a heuristic that evolved in a “universe” of tribal scale.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

            “However I don’t see how one can reasonably dispute the idea that our moral intuitions — by which I mean the self-evident moral axioms from which moral reasoning begins — are products of evolution, like everything else in our brains. Where else could they have come from (once you rule out God)?”
            Same place as our mathematical intuitions – awareness of non-empirical truths?
            (No doubt religious believers would have a different objection: you take something they regard as one of the best pieces of extra-scriptural evidence for a supreme moral being, and “rule out” their explanation.)

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure what you mean by “mathematical intuitions”. Mathematical truths (i.e. theorems) are arrived at by an explicit process of deductive reasoning, and are always conditioned on the assumption that their axioms are true. (Mathematical conjectures may be arrived at by subconscious or “intuitive” leaps of logic, but we don’t know that such conjectures are true until they’ve been rigorously proven.)

              If you’re talking about the axioms themselves, then I agree that they seem self-evident to us for the same reason that moral axioms seem self-evident: because our brains have been wired by evolution with assumptions that tend to yield useful or beneficial results. Mathematical intuitions help us function effectively in the physical world; moral intuitions help us function effectively in human society.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

      Sorry to join this comment-chain late. Happiness is good in some sense (though I don’t think it exhausts the field). But obviousness can’t be the reason. Throughout history the majority of people have deemed it acceptable or desirable to inflict varying degrees of unhappiness on others. (We all seek our own happiness, but morality is particularly about the treatment of other people.) Even today, wihin the limits circumscribed by law and custom, this is so. We live in a “Don’t get mad – get even” society (and religious fundamentalists are possibly the worst offenders). I believe we should have regard to the happiness of others; but the duty of generosity towards people you don’t like – or who don’t like you – is far from obvious to most people.

      • Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

        Hi logicophilosophicus,

        I think that inflicting unhappiness on others is perfectly consistent with believing that happiness is good. You just need to think that one of these is true: (1) my happiness is more important than theirs; (2) the goodness of happiness is outweighed by some other benefit.

  13. Myron
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    As for the question of moral knowledge, see:

    * Moral Epistemology (in the SEP): http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-epistemology/

    * Moral Epistemology (in the IEP): http://www.iep.utm.edu/mor-epis/

  14. Alex T
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    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.”

    I’d love to see this argument. Just reading it I can feel my mind making reflexive twitches in opposition but thinking about it some more, I can start to see some advantages.

    My concerns are:

    1) Are we losing something by abandoning “moral”? Harris tried to argue that “moral” is generally synonymous with something like “promotes human flourishing” but I wasn’t sold. I think that “help/harm society” doesn’t get at everything we want to say.

    I can imagine some things that could be argued would help society but which I still believe are immoral because they would take away rights or harm individuals. Tight group cohesion and enforcing group norms might make for a very strong society at the cost of individual differences.

    2) What about the rhetorical punch of the terms? If they have meaning, why drop them for some snooty blorp of academeese? I can see the arguments for dropping Free Will and sin because of the religious baggage, but I’d need some convincing to drop ‘moral’.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts, I’m sure it will be provocative, insightful and contentious 🙂

    • Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Alex T,

      I think we probably are losing something by abandoning ‘moral’ and ‘immoral.’

      For one thing, ‘morally good’ can’t be synonymous with ‘promotes human flourishing,’ as G. E. Moore pointed out, since ‘I understand that that promotes human flourishing, but is it morally good?’ is an open question, but ‘I understand that that promotes human flourishing, but does it promote human flourishing?’ isn’t.

      For another thing, we can talk about how certain things are good and certain other things are bad all we want, but there remains the question, ‘Given that X is good, how ought I react to that goodness?’ If there’s no answer, then we’re still left with the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with murder, torture, rape, genocide, and so on. We can say those are bad, but there’s nothing wrong with promoting badness, if morality doesn’t exist.

      A quick (Moorean) argument: Consider three propositions:

      1. Murder, torture, rape, and genocide are wrong.

      2. Free will doesn’t exist.

      3. (1) and (2) are incompatible.

      Many would argue that (1) is overall more plausible than (2) and overall more plausible than (3). And then we can ask: Why would anyone accept something that wasn’t the overall most plausible thing to accept?

      • Gary W
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        For one thing, ‘morally good’ can’t be synonymous with ‘promotes human flourishing,’

        Absolutely. Defining good in terms of “human flourishing” (or any other kind of flourishing) just raises the question of why one ought to promote that flourishing.

        ‘Given that X is good, how ought I react to that goodness?’

        If “X is good” means “one ought to do X” then the question is a tautology (one ought to do what one ought to do). Othwerise, what do you mean by “is good?”

        Many would argue that (1) is overall more plausible than (2) and overall more plausible than (3).

        Many would argue that the earth is only 6,000 years old. I don’t think appeals to common beliefs get you very far in this context. The relevant question is why (1) should be considered more plausible than (2). I don’t think it should. But again, you don’t define your terms, so I’m assuming that by “free will” mean libertarian, contra-causal free will, and by “are wrong” you are expressing a claim of objective moral fact rather than just a subjective preference.

        • Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

          Hi Gary W.,

          Thanks for your comment. You ask:

          If “X is good” means “one ought to do X” then the question is a tautology (one ought to do what one ought to do). Othwerise, what do you mean by “is good?”

          I don’t think that ‘x is good’ means ‘one ought to promote x,’ because I’m not a consequentialist. Sometimes there are good things, such as overall happiness, that still should not be promoted in every situation, because doing so would (e.g.) violate rights.

          I don’t think earth being 6,000 years old is overall plausible. It’s not even immediately plausible, but it’s especially not overall plausible, given our knowledge of earth.

          I’d like to see the argument for (2) or for (3) expanded completely into its basic appeals to overall plausibility–which every argument requires, in the end. In other words, if you were to make it a deductive argument from premises that couldn’t be justified any further, I would like to see those premises, and whether they are overall more plausible than (1).

          But your surmises of my meanings are correct.

          • Gary W
            Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

            You asked “Given that X is good, how ought I react to that goodness?” The answer depends on what you mean by “good.” You still haven’t explained that.

            I also don’t understand why you think only consequentialism involves moral obligation (the idea that one ought to behave in certain ways). All moral theories imply “oughts.” That’s what morality means.

      • jimroberts
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        I strongly disagree. 1. Murder, torture, rape, and genocide are wrong. 2. Free will (in the sense that Jerry uses the term) doesn’t exist. But these are not incompatible.
        Whenever “I” make a decision, i.e. choose some action out of various apparent possibilities, either the metaphysical non-corporeal “me”, or the nervous system (especially brain) which is part of the body typing these words, or a combination of the two, passes through some series of intermediate states until the action occurs. There is no practical way to determine whether this series depends only on determinate physical rules, possibly with some small input from quantum-mechanical indeterminacy, or also on possible utterly unpredictable input from some non-physical source.
        I belong to a species whose survival and success have depended on a high level of cooperation offsetting the inevitable conspecific competition. Simple natural selection therefore predisposes me to act as though coersive acts such as murder, torture, rape, and genocide are wrong. Free will is utterly irrelevant.

        • jimroberts
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          Damn! “coercive” of course, not “coersive”. The revenge of freewill, in the sense of “being able to be wrong”?

  15. Veroxitatis
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I should just like to point out that Gibbon is a thoroughly bad example to choose since his writings predated the German historicist school of the early 19th. century and it’s concentration on primary sources. Of course there must be interpretation. History without interpretation is like stamp collecting, to paraphrase a quotation from another field, but overarching, grandiose narrative is rare in serious history texts nowadays and even rarer with the departure of Mr, Hobsbawm.

  16. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Uh oh, Eric MacDonald is avuncular™ now (or was he already? I forget.) We all know what happened to Karl Giberson after he’d been avuncular™ for a while: excommunication. 😀

  17. AbnormalWrench
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I really have no idea what people mean when they say belief in the scientific method is “scientism”. It reminds me of the argument from Gould about the plumber who had a purely materialistic understanding how water leaks were traced, but also thought the world was only 6000 years old. There is a disconnect that is obvious as soon as you try to cross the barrier of immediate reality and ideological history. If you highered a plumber who gravely told you the problem with your pipes in they were possessed by demons and they need a good exorcism, you would send that plumber packing as fast as you could. For some reason, this “faith” in materialism falls away when discussing history or morality. Why?

    • jimroberts
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      “highered” is an amazing word! I would really like to know how that happened. I cannot imagine that, for example, dictation software would come up with it.

      Totally OT, sorry:(

      • AbnormalWrench
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        I meant to say “hired”, which is obvious, so you’re a troll. Thanks for playing.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          jimroberts is not a troll.

          • jimroberts
            Posted February 17, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

            Thank you!
            Really, I’m not. Obviously, AbnormalWrench, I know as well as anybody else what you meant to say, but I am genuinely surprised at the way it came out, and would truly like to understand what combination of common human and inevitable technological frailty could lead to it.

            • AbnormalWrench
              Posted February 17, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

              Well, thanks for being overwhelmed at my lack of English skills. I’m an 8th grade drop out, and you are more than welcome to make fun of my abililtes if you like, if it somehow helps your self-worth.

              • jimroberts
                Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:02 am | Permalink

                I apologise. There is nothing wrong with your English skills. The occasional typo or misspelling can happen to anybody.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        jimroberts, that’s not only off-topic, but rude. Could you please apologize to AbnormalWrench for that? We are not here to marvel at typos!

        • jimroberts
          Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:04 am | Permalink

          Sorry to mess up your thread with an off-topic comment.
          For what it’s worth, I did come here to apologise to AbnormalWrench before I saw your comment.

  18. Jamie
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    I think, in the second sentence above, you are still conflating facts with their interpretation. If by ‘fact’ you mean ‘what people think is true’ then you’re, right, but so is Eric. If you mean the actual state of the matter under investigation, then, no, the facts don’t change, neither historical nor scientific. All that changes is our understanding of those facts.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Facts can’t change? The percentage of people in the US who support same-sex marriage… Has it changed?

      • Jamie
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        The proportion of people in a given population supporting same sex marriage at time T as measured by method x might show some slight variance depending on who is applying method x and how well operationalized method x is. The underlying fact of how many people actually do support it at a given time, if their is a fact of the matter at all, does not change.

        I considered adding a qualifying clause above to the effect that “unless the underlying conditions of the matter under investigation change,” but thought it was too obvious to mention.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

          Probably so. I was feeling ornery, looking for some edge case. I actually agree with you.

      • Pete Cockerell
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        90% of this thread has gone straight over my head, but even I recognize the speciousness of this. Since when has a “fact” included a value that’s well known to vary over time? That the percentage of a population that supports SSM lies between 0 and 100 is a fact. That at midnight on a certain date, 51.1% of the population supports it might also be a fact, if the numbers could be measured with suitable accuracy. Neither of those facts changes over time, the first because it encompasses all possible values, and the second because time-variance has been defined out.

        You’re confusing facts and measurements.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I regretted my comment as soon as I hit “Post Comment”. I shall live forever in shame.

    • Myron
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      There’s a difference between a proposition’s being a truth/fact and its being believed to be a truth/fact. If the historical truth/fact that Brutus stabbed Caesar obtains, then it cannot change, since what has been true/the case will always have been true/the case. But what can change is our belief or knowledge-claim that Brutus stabbed Caesar. For hitherto unknown historical evidence might appear that makes it likely that it wasn’t Brutus but somebody else who stabbed Caesar. And if Brutus really didn’t stab Caesar, then we never knew but only mistakenly believed that he did.

    • Myron
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      If a fact is a true proposition (or statement), then it can change in the sense that a true proposition can become an untrue/false proposition (but not an untrue/false fact since facts are true by definition). For example, the proposition “Barack Obama is the president of the USA” is a fact in 2013 but it will be a nonfact in 2023. On the other hand, the proposition “Barack Obama is the president of the USA in 2013” is a fact in 2013 and it will always remain a fact. That is, in 2023 it will still be true that Barack Obama is the president of the USA in 2013. Changeable facts, i.e. true propositions which can become untrue, are time- or date-relatively true: proposition p is true at t or during the temporal interval T.

  19. Rich Cook
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    You say “I am starting to think that we should dispense with the idea of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ acts.” Sam Harris compares the ideas of “moral” and “immoral” with the ideas of “health” and “sickness.” He points out that just because they are not well defined or fundamental principles does not mean they are not useful or serve no purpose. (Forgive my double negativity.) It is still useful to talk about morality, even “objective” morality, so long as we know what we mean, which is “morality based on objective reasoning,” and not “morality that exists as a thing apart in the world.”

  20. Barbara
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I’ve never liked the way the term “ways of knowing” is used in these discussions.

    To me, “ways of knowing” are more basic than either religion or the field of science. To me, both religion and science use all the different ways of knowing, though usually in vastly different proportions.

    Examples of ways of knowing, in my sense of the term?

    1. The kind of associative reasoning we humans do most of the time. (Situation K is like situation B, so I should do X.) Because the situations we face now are usually similar to situations we faced before, this often works.

    3. Logical reasoning. Great. It needn’t get us anywhere true, of course. Theology is almost all logical reasoning.

    3. Intuition. A subconscious analysis integrating many, many points of information. It’s great when we do it right, but it’s hard to correct the method when it’s wrong because the thought patterns aren’t conscious. Even if a person does it well, communicating the method to others is difficult or impossible. (One of my sisters has astonishingly good social intuition. I don’t. On behavior of many non-human mammals, though, my intuition is great.)

    4. An emotional way of knowing. Basic moral sense belongs in this category. The knowledge we get this way is subjective, but (since the biochemical pathways underlying it is honed by millions of years of evolution) often important, at least to us humans. This emotional, subjective process tells us a lot about what we humans can live with, and shouldn’t be ignored, though it should usually be reined in by our more logical abilities.

    5. The “scientific method” where we get a conscious idea (often from observations, but it might come from hallucination, religious doctrine, anything) and test it before relying on it as an accurate picture of the world. The testing step uses predictions based logically on the idea, careful observation (often but not always from experimentation), and acceptance of the implications of the observations, even if the they are that the idea was wrong.

    I view scientific method of one of many ways of knowledge, and not the only one that can help us get to truth. However, it’s the most correctable, reliable method. It’s the method that we can most easily train others to do well. It’s marvelously effective at discerning truth about our universe and ourselves. Therefore, I think that arguments against “scientism” are foolish or harmful, even though I think the scientific method isn’t the only way of knowing.

    There. Had to get that off my chest. Maybe I can avoid writing about it any time again soon.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

      Fair enough. It’s like the way there are several ways of counting including enumeration (which is mathy and ought to be exact), estimation (which is sciencey and has error bars), and subitation (intuitive number-grasping, which seems like magic until you remember it only works for small numbers, where ‘small’ reportedly varies up to quite impressive values in autistic savants).

      • Larry Gay
        Posted February 18, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        Interesting. Am I being scientistic by proposing that women are better at instant reading of character (see the second #3 above) than men? This is based on nothing more than 75 years of casual observation. I’m betting science will answer this question in the affirmative, if it hasn’t already.

  21. Jamie
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “that claim [science is the only source or domain of truth] itself is not a scientific one, and, as such, already takes the first step towards an ideological (dare I say?) idolisation of science.”

    What is being idolized is knowledge, not science, Since the faith community wants so badly to shoehorn their beliefs, intuitions and convictions into the domain of knowledge, to partake of the authority of that certain epistemic status. This battle is properly fought at the level of what constitutes ‘knowledge’. Not until one has agreement on that can one rationally discuss various “ways” to achieve it. It seems clear that those arguing for “a different way of knowing” are making stealth arguments for a different definition of ‘knowledge’.

  22. Howard Kornstein
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I’ve always gone along with Popper on the importance of falsifiability as being a critical requirement when trying to establish if a discipline is scientific or not. We can certainly factually establish if an event took place, but we can never falsify a THEORY describing as what exactly led to that some historical train of events. As with Economics, ANY theory can be plausible, while none is falsifiable. So though we can “learn from history” we can never predict outcomes based on any historical theory.
    As for morality I feel we are on somewhat stronger grounds. Here at lease we can scientifically determine what produces our innate strategies as social animals – and this is certainly the bedrock of our “moral instinct”, e.g. with Evolutionary Game Theory we can validate say, the Golden Rule. But to carry this analysis to the very complex issues of modern life, if euthanasia is morally acceptable, I cannot see how science can help.
    None of this of course invalidates the importance of rational analysis and critical thinking, which are such important attributes of the scientific mind.

    • Myron
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Falsifiability is not a sufficient condition for scientificality:

      “Popper’s demarcation criterion has been criticized both for excluding legitimate science (Hansson 2006) and for giving some pseudosciences the status of being scientific (Agassi 1991; Mahner 2007, 518–519). Strictly speaking, his criterion excludes the possibility that there can be a pseudoscientific claim that is refutable. According to Larry Laudan (1983, 121), it “has the untoward consequence of countenancing as ‘scientific’ every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions”. Astrology, rightly taken by Popper as an unusually clear example of a pseudoscience, has in fact been tested and thoroughly refuted (Culver and Ianna 1988; Carlson 1985). Similarly, the major threats to the scientific status of psychoanalysis, another of his major targets, do not come from claims that it is untestable but from claims that it has been tested and failed the tests.”


      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted February 17, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        Popper never claimed that falsifibility is the SOLE determinater of scientificality… evidence and predictability being among other key criteria. On the other hand inability to falsify IN GENERAL within a discipline is a certain determinant that it is not science.

      • gluonspring
        Posted February 18, 2013 at 1:10 am | Permalink


        The whole idea of having some kind of external divining rod you can use to label endeavors as “science” or “pseudoscience” strikes me as sort blinkered, more politics and rhetoric than useful activity. What is the purpose of trying to label psychoanalysis either “science” or “not science”? It can only be to discredit it by proxy. Is it not sufficient to criticize the specific arguments and evidence of psychoanalysis, to either affirm or discard the underlying theory based on the evidence, without playing the game of “is it science”?

        Philosophers have spilled a lot of ink trying to clearly demarcate what “science” is exactly. It has always seemed to me that the ultimate aim of such endeavors was to come up with a club with which they could club ideas they didn’t like in bulk. I think it’s about as productive an exercise as trying to demarcate what “socialism” is, and then to turn and try to use such definitions to discredit whole swaths of ideas. To say that something is or isn’t “scientific”, or that it is or isn’t “socialistic”, as though that tells you all you need to know, is just to dodge the specifics merits of whatever idea is under question.

        • Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

          Many such proposals founder because they are unifactoral – this is true of Popper’s. However, if one takes a more expansive approach (e.g. Bunge’s, designed with Popper’s failure in mind) then one can get useful characterizations of pseudoscience. There are still edge cases, but it does clearly rule out psychoanalysis, astrology, etc. Why? The “compatibility with other fields” criteria, which are the hardest to explain and debate – and where most scientific popularizations and books on “practical sketpticism” fail. I am still working on the matter myself – it is not an easy topic.

  23. Edward Clint
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Humans and human enterprises are bound by the frailties and flaws intrinsic to the species. Pointing out that science is such an enterprise is not helpful.

    What is helpful, is asking which has a built-in , functional mechanism for appeal when things have gone wrong? Religion does not, and that is what makes the use of religious power and influence so dangerous. When a theist says that they are right because “God said so” or “God told me”, the discussion is over. Such “evidence” can not be appealed or questioned by any means available to all people.

    When scientists make a mess of it (and yes they do!) no matter their rank or position, the lowliest person can still ask, what is your evidence? And pursuing a superior (in the sense of evidence) avenue, such a person can and will prevail.

    In recent centuries, many churches have evolved , changing their purpose in response to losing their power and influence. All that remains of some formerly politically powerful sects is a “puppies & kittens” version based on community and support. It is these that pro-faith people have in mind when defending faith for morality or community.

    They may have failed to notice that religion is civil in direct proportion to its powerlessness.

  24. logicophilosophicus
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    There is a good example of the difference beween science and ethics in medical research. It is frequently the case that, part way through a study, there is strong but not compelling evidence that the trial group are benefiting from a treatment which is being withheld from the control group. The issue is real, but cannt be resolved in purely scentific terms.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      Is that what happened with Vioxx?

      Calling off a clinical trial at any point when the evidence for beneficial effect is “strong but not compelling” is surely both illegal and immoral everywhere. (It should also not even be possible in the case of double-blind studies.)

      For although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in the [beneficial effect of the drug], yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them. Their sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiring, were stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and passion.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted February 18, 2013 at 4:07 am | Permalink

        Should have attributed that modified quote:

        William K. Clifford 1877, The Ethics of Belief.

        Very relevant to atheism/religion and scientism/’otherways of knowing’ debates!

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted February 18, 2013 at 4:38 am | Permalink

          I am interested in your view that calling off a clinical trial is immoral. A better example, which might well have happened if modern testing regimes had been in place half a century ago… Imagine, after successful primate trials of Thalidomide, that a study had been done on its effectiveness and safety as a treatment for morning sickness. Let’s suppose a three of four year study, intended to screen for relatively subtle impairments. A few months in, the excess of gross birth defects starts to show…

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted February 18, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

            OK, calling off a trial and not approving the drug is the opposite of the case I was thinking of. So, it’s a different example, ‘better’ depending on ones purpose.
            However, the ‘unexpected appalling side-effects’ case is why my assumption above about double-blind design was naive: of course someone (suitably qualified, disinterested and discreet!) should be able to unseal and inspect the matched-up data if there’s any reasonable suspicion of an excess of bad outcomes. But not vice versa!

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            It seems to me that there is a big difference between calling off a clinical trial to prevent further harm, as in your example, and calling it off because the treatment being tested is believed on initial evidence to be so good that it would be unethical to deny it to the control group. The former case is clear cut, in my opinion, whereas the latter is problematic.

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted February 18, 2013 at 4:44 am | Permalink

          BTW Thanks for the Clifford link, which I followed. Lots of good points, including:
          “When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.” That’s a defining difference between ethical and scientific truths – ethics is about intentions, not outcomes.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted February 18, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

            More than just intentions, is Clifford’s point.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    A good piece. If one doesn’t grok scientism and its observational underpinnings, then it should look as an ideology. It is not illogical on those grounds, it is just ignorant or a failing of study.

    My own simplified take:

    1. History.

    Observed facts, mixed with opinion in philosophical fashion. I don’t think there is enough validated theory to underpin specific interpretations (say, theories about the generic importance of individual events), but I don’t much about the area.

    2. Morality.

    Statistics of behaviors, mixed with ethical models (used in jurisdiction) and other opinion.

    The first is because the notion of morality is implicitly connected with free choice, that is, with “free will” in the dualistic sense.

    Not with the dualistic sense “free will”, but insufficiently known constrained choice. “Morality” is as much an effective theory as is “choice”, so there is no inconsistency or problem of principle.

    They are practical simplifications, avoiding decades if not centuries of deliberating on what constitutes subjective “societal well being” in lieu of snap decisions.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      I know there is a missing “know” in there. :-/

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      And even that came out wrong. [/goes for coffee]

  26. Roo
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I always enjoy accusations of scientism. I picture Dave Chappelle doing Rick James, except as a giant beaker that says “Science”. And Charlie Murphy is OWOK. Then I laugh in the middle of Panera and choke on my coffee and people are like “Why are you choking to death on your latte?” and I’m like “I’m having Another Way Of Knowing”, and they’re like “Oh, cool.” Anyways.

    I tend to agree that subjectivity is its own “thing”. I think people have been intuiting this for a long time. I think this is what Einstein was pointing to with his “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” comment (I believe he was more or less an atheist, so I assume he didn’t mean religion in a literal sense). Or what troubled the Englightenment thinkers when they talked about the facts-values distinction. Or what Hallmark designers envision when they create flower covered mugs with slogans about listening to your heart, it may be on the left but it’s always right! (Sorry, Jerry, did you just throw up a little bit?)

    There’s something there. But it’s hard to put to words, to describe what is being defined and what, exactly, we need to “do” with it. Loosely put, the “OWOK” is subjectivity. This will cross into areas wherever subjectivity is invoked, such as interpretations, morality, or people who provided guidance regarding the human experience (traditionally, religion, sometimes more secular spirituality or psychology). Subjectivity is the base of everything we do, but not amenable, directly, to the methods of science. They can tell us about subjectivity, to describe it, chart how it moves and in response to what. But they’re not equivalent to that experience.

    But to whose care should we leave subjectivity, without religion? I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I think this is an interesting and as of yet unresolved problem of the moment. But I think Eric is correct in assuming that someone will adopt this role, and it would be a mistake for science to shrug and ignore the needs related to “OWOK”. Better to have an eye on who’s in a position to catch that particular fly ball, I think.

  27. Myron
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like the unclear and misleading phrase “way(s) of knowing”. It had better be replaced with “way(s) of coming to know” or “way(s) of acquiring knowledge”. I can perceptually, introspectively, intuitively, or memorially come to know that a proposition p is true; but once I do know that p, I cannot know it in different ways like I can walk in different ways, e.g. slowly or quickly.

  28. jiten
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Oops, I seem to have overstepped the mark with my previous comment. I apologise. I didn’t mean to be rude, although I now realise my comment didn’t have anything constructive to say.

  29. Jeff Johnson
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    The idea of scientism, and the fears about scientism, seem to me based on an extreme parody of science as a bunch of nerds who are out of touch with normal human existance because they spend too much time being blinded by data and lab time to see all the other beautiful qualitative aspects of life.

    It should be clear to everyone, especially to scientists, that the same kind of precise measurement used to determine the speed of light or to determine the exact chemical composition of various materials can not be applied to psychology, economics, morality, or aesthetics. There is a degree with with such quantitative measurement can be applied to supplement various social sciences and humanities, but clearly these fields contain more knowledge than can be attained by pure quantitative measurement.

    Jerry clearly works with a broader view of rational empirical enquiry in this discussion than pure science usually encompasses. There is some confusion though because it is not really clear exactly where to draw the line between rational analysis of observable facts, and philosophical or theological metaphysical speculation.

    In the naturalistic view, in which the Universe originates without any intelligence or divine guidance whatsoever, we can start by considering the earth 3.5 or 3.6 billion years ago, this is clearly purely the realm of science. There is physics, chemistry, geology, only inanimate material, a paradise for scientismists, whoever they may be. Abiogenisis is the search for the transformation from a bunch of chemicals to replicating nucleotides and peptides, the minimalist raw stuff of biology. By some as yet unknown process we believe prokaryotic single celled life developed over time. This is still the realm of pure science. The same holds as single celled life evolved into multi-celled organisms, eventually giving rise to all of the subjects of biology. We are still in the domain of pure science.

    We can incrementally advance this line forward in time all the way up to when intelligence reaches the point where abstraction, recursion, self-awareness, language, and culture are developing. Everything that happened before that is really out of bounds for religion, though religion wants to claim knowledge of these epochs. Religion has no way of knowing anything about what happened prior to language and culture evolving.

    We can continue moving this line forward until the only thing left for religion claim knowledge of is what happens in people’s minds, and what happens in people’s interactions with one another. But this leaves no place for God, the soul, angels, miracles, or the afterlife. And what can religion really offer except that it has been a kind of repository culturally of early attempts at explaining nature, standardizing moral codes, providing a coherent view of various economic, political, and psychological virtues supported by a variety of historical and fictional narratives. It seems obvious that religion simply evolved with language and culture as a Swiss Army knife of imaginative explanations of natural events coupled with systems of social and political control. Since religious leaders had authority as civilizations grew due to agriculture and writing, new ideas were subsumed into religion. Today we are carrying on what was started by the Greeks, the untangling of all knowledge from the centrally authorized keepers of all wisdom that religious leaders have been, and developing it into a plethora of fields of inquiry ranging from the sciences to the social sciences and humanities, none of which depends on the outmoded forms of religion in any way whatsoever.

    Religion offers no unique methods, no unique techniques, no means of advancing knowledge. Religion itself was developed by good old fashioned observation, theorizing, and rational analysis, the results of which are recorded in variously structured narratives. These same methods suffice today in all the academic fields of inquiry, sans Religion. Religion serves no further purpose in aquiring new knowledge, but serves only as a historical repository where antique knowledge has been encoded. It also serves as a framework for human ritual and practice and belief, all of which provides no knowledge of physical reality, but rather carries a psychological impact for its practitioners that many find helpful in their daily lives. So perhaps we can say religion encodes shared modes of behavior, but it does not acquire new knowledge not provide any unique knowledge, other than of the historical intricacies of theological beliefs.

    • Gary W
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink


      Your comments are so long-winded. One of the basic principles of good writing is brevity.

      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted February 18, 2013 at 1:23 am | Permalink

        I personally find Jeffs post the best of the lot in this thread. I can’t see how it could really be much briefer.

        Anyone who doesn’t like long posts can just avoid reading them.

        As Jerry often points out, corrections of grammar or style adds nothing to any discussion or debate.

        Shall we now all return to the discussion?

        • gbjames
          Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

          Yes, but.

          I am personally entirely in line with the content of Jeff’s lengthy comment.

          Still, brevity is useful. I skipped the comment yesterday because I didn’t have time to make my way all the way through.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted February 18, 2013 at 4:25 am | Permalink

        Thanks Howard, much appreciated. Gary, you aren’t the first to warn me of excess verbosity. Perhaps you will be glad that i intend this to be my final contribution to this thread.

        I was telling a very long story. Almost any sentence could be expanded into many paragraphs, so I was in fact attempting a kind of brevity.

        The point of the story was to try to provide some clear boundaries between religion and other forms of knowledge. There is much knowledge not covered by science proper, so basing anti-religion arguments purely on science is a flawed approach that apparently leaves a blurred middle ground, which religion can try to claim while leveling the charge of scientism. It seems that Eric may be falling into that quicksand.

        The main points, which I hoped could be illuminated by briefly viewing the history of nature, life, and intellect, are 1. that once religion is stripped of its metaphysical claims, where it clearly conflicts with pure science, what remains are aspects of reality that are subjective, psychological, and cultural, which from the stand point of advancing knowledge are better handled by social sciences and humanities, and 2. Religion never possessed any special or unique tools for acquiring knowledge other than observation, imagining and reasoning about hypotheses, and constructing and refining narratives from this experience. These tools have been vastly improved outside of religion, as Howard points out, and religion remains as an artifact of early and primitive human attempts at science, medicine, literature, philosophy, politics, history, ethics, economics, and psychology.

        Seen this way, it seems clear that the idea that humanity must choose between religion and science is very much misguided. Humanity must choose between modern updated forms of the full spectrum of knowledge ranging from science to social sciences to humanities, or continue trying to wring further value out of the antiquated versions of this knowledge still preserved in religious form. Religion really is reduced to rituals and beliefs, perhaps comforting to some, but religion no longer has any right to maintain the pretense of being a source of knowledge or possessing truths that are uniquely religious.

        I think Eric is quite correct that we are in trouble if we think we can rely on pure quantitative science proper, but I don’t believe anyone really thinks that. This is the myth of scientism. What we in fact have is that all forms of knowledge have advanced and left religion behind, and that all forms of knowledge have benefitted from improved forms of observation, improved forms of reasoning and testing hypotheses, and improved forms of analyzing various types of evidence.

    • Howard Kornstein
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      “Religion itself was developed by good old fashioned observation, theorizing, and rational analysis, the results of which are recorded in variously structured narratives”

      “Old fashioned” is right. Religion arose from a innate desire humans have to seek causation, but at a time when next to no understanding of the physical universe existed. So theorised causes were primitive in the extreme. Rational analysis itself was poorly developed, so that explanations that arose were not the subject of critical analysis or further empirical observation. On the other hand early theories that “a god did it” were taken on as a base premise for any further logical analysis, as time moved on. Thankfully most academic disciplines do not exhibit these old fashioned and primitive characteristics, thus allowing human knowledge a much greater opportunity to progress.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      I can’t agree that religion is just archived scientific failure. Religion – complete with invisible entities and anti-adaptive ritual and taboo – seems to be universal in early homo sapiens cultures, and that is a datum in need of an explanation.

  30. Jim Sweeney
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to repeat some comments I left on Eric MacDonald’s original post, because I still think they’re useful.

    Scientific knowledge, meaning primarily theory, is a particular sort of knowledge with a well-understood epistemology and acknowledged limitations. It’s robust and practical and presumptively subject to revision.

    It’s not the only sort of knowledge, though. Mathematics has a much different method, and its results are certain as well as robust and occasionally practical.

    Facts (data, evidence) are essential to science, irrelevant to math, and quite fragile, not at all robust. Individual observations may or not be useful. A given fact can be undeniably true, not potentially subject to future refinement, not the consequence of a prior choice of axioms, and thus not true in the same sense as a theory or a theorem.

    So we have three distinct types of knowledge without even visiting the humanities departments.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink


  31. garardi
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    morality is a belief system and whatever science may tell us is the best thing for society people will make their own rules for morality. This does not make it a way of knowing only a belief.
    If religion gives morality then why don’t we all sacrifice animals to our god. Narrow views of religion cannot be used to make a point religions have differing moralities, one wife, more than one wife, more than one husband, don’t get married, get married, beat your wife and kids where does religion give a view of morality? It varies with the changes of the wind.

  32. Gordon Hill
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks all… for me, knowing is about the conscious element, the thought, which exists or not, depending on what one means by ‘exist.’ Jaspers wrote of the comprehensive, which I understood to mean ‘reality as such’ to be perceived and characterized by us in thought form, our personal comprehensive, which must vary for everyone.

    The first question is, what is meant by knowing. what character must a thought possess to be considered knowing? All of mine, while different in effect, seem equally valid.

    I’m convinced there may be only one way of knowing, but am at a loss to characterize ‘knowing as such.’

  33. neil
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    As I see it, the problem is not so much in the “knowing”, it is in the weeding out things that are false among the things you think you know. As far as I can tell, science is the best way of doing that.

  34. gluonspring
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    I think he senses something that is an actual concern, but it isn’t a worry about the scope of science but rather about how people are tempted to misappropriate the reputation of science. As that reputation soars, the temptation misappropriate, and the consequences, increase.

    Let me give a frivolous example that I think about often. I was once in a jury pool and the attorneys asked everyone whether they had ever had a dispute with a contractor. When asked, one man, a professor, said that he had but that since he was a scientist he would of course look at the case at hand objectively and unbiased by his own experience. This made me chuckle. Has he never heard of double-blinding? What is that for except to protect against scientists own biases? The idea that being a scientist would free you from bias is not an idea that is much supported by science. It is, rather, just a ham fisted effort to trade on the reputation of science. I think the attorneys didn’t buy it in this case as he wasn’t selected for the panel. They selected almost uniformly people who had no real estate dealings at all, blank slates like me, a college student. In this case, the attorneys were probably acting as evidence based scientists more than the “scientist”.

    We see this also in the public sphere. Already the reputation of science is such that almost anyone attempting to advance a cause in the public sphere seeks to be seen as having science on it’s side. This leads to many games and much propaganda about what is or isn’t “legitimate science”, when of course what matters is not whether we label an idea or study as “science”, but what the particular merits of the idea actually are.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      I think the attorneys didn’t buy it in this case as he wasn’t selected for the panel.

      That’s a win for the scientist, then, and presumably the intended result. If any attorney ever wanted a scientist on the jury (which is moot), the other team would have an equal motive to scratch him.

  35. madscientist
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    I still argue that scientism is a strawman. How many scientism people does anyone here know? Of the many hundreds of scientists I’ve known and worked with I don’t know a single one who subscribes to scientism.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Good point. The term “scientism” is just a poorly defined slur word. Those who use the term should supply us with a good list of example scientismists if they want us to take the word seriously.

    • Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      You are probably right about thoughtful, practicing scientists. I don’t know any scientismists among my colleagues either.

      I have, however, seen people pop up in comment threads who look pretty much like that strawman, arguing that all the humanities are nonsense, belong into the dustbin of history and will in due course be swept away by brain scans and physics.

  36. TJR
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Jerry uses the word “science” in a very broad sense, whereas Eric (as is made clear in his comments, though not the original post) uses it in a much more restricted sense.

    Apart from that, I’m not sure there’s really a substantive disagreement.

    To those of us who use the Coyneian definition of “science” the last paragraph of Eric’s post looks completely off the rails, seemingly almost equating scientism with postmodernism (!?).

    However, I suspect from the point of view of his narrower definition he was just warning about the perils of worshipping people in white coats.

    Hmm, did I just use science to try to interpret what they were saying, or was I using “other ways of knowing”?

    • gbjames
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      The problem is that few of us seem to be able to recognize any examples of the worship of people in white coats. So we are left with this slur being tossed about at unspecified “scientismists” while being left on our own to figure out who actually is one of these dreadful characters.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        Yes; if this phenomenon is so common, why can’t Eric or others give any examples of people who are scientistists?

  37. Robert Bray
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I will offer only a single non-rhetorical question and a brief gloss here, because the ‘history as a science’ topic is quite vexing to me. Do natural scientists mean the same thing by ‘fact’ and ‘event’ as historians do? I suspect an ontological equivocation at work, especially concerning ‘event,’ but I cannot see the matter clearly enough to assert this with confidence.

    • Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      “event” can be used in the same way in all scientific fields. My MA thesis was on (effectively) this topic. Note, however, that in the special case of relativistic mechanics, “event” does have a specific stipulative definition that is just a special case (where the spacetime region is taken to be 0 size) of the more general characterization I propose.

      As for “fact”, almost no word is so equivocal (perhaps “realism”). I prefer to use it to mean “what is the case” (i.e., states of affairs or events), as opposed to “fact statements”, which are statements which purport to state what is the case. This is just to avoid facile subjectivism and is purely a linguistic suggestion. Those who use it to mean “true proposition” are welcome to their usage, of course, but then have to decide how to handle the referent of such propositions, and that’s trickier.

  38. Posted March 1, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    “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…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.”

    Briefly put, it is your broad construing of science and its methods that is at issue. The methodologies of even “natural” sciences are not as unified or reducible as you imply. What counts as “tangible evidence” is up for perennial debate in the sciences, even within specific disciplines. The issue of scientism cannot be side-stepped by contending that varied means of inquiry such as history, physics, population ecology, psychology, various social and cultural studies approaches, etc. can all be reduced to an essentially unified and consistent way of knowing. In other words, while there are perhaps superficial similarities, the way one finds out that Julius Caesar existed is not pretty much the same way we find out that Pangaea existed, just as the way one finds out if up-quarks really exist is not essentially the same way one finds out if smoking causes cancer.

    Certain methods or approaches are given priority, and greater rhetorical force, in different contexts and for different purposes. Hence, broad debates about the validity of quantitative vs. qualitative methods, or debates about clinical vs. population based research, or in-situ vs. ex-situ studies, or debates between theoreticians and observationalists, or debates between psychologists about the merits of evolutionary psychology, or debates about the relevance of fMRIs in neuroscience, and so on. These revolve around in various ways different attitudes towards reductionism, physicalism, coherentism, interpretation, etc. They involve precisely the question of what counts as authoritative, admissible, important, definitive – in other words, “real” knowledge. Scientism comes in a variety of forms, and arguably, the prevailing attitudes in certain scientific disciplines are more scientistic than others. Indeed, one of the main issues is defining precisely what constitutes scientific knowledge; sufficiently broad definitions aren’t much help in this regard.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted March 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      We can for the sake of argument turn this whole conversation on its head, and without trying to define the difference between say historical knowledge and scientific knowledge for example, we can simply acknowledge that there are many ways to learn and know things, and that the scientific method is one particular successful way for knowing about the natural world that lies beyond subjective ideas in the human mind.

      Now there is no claim that science or empirically testable observation is the only way to know things. No scientism.

      So now lets ask religion, compared to say history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, or even art or music, what knowledge can religion give us, and how can it arrive at this knowledge?

      And I think the true answer is, religion has no way to know anything that is unique to religion.

      The religious can try to apply some methods of history, some methods of psychology, economics, politics, or philosophy, and perhaps gain some knowledge that experts in those fields could have done as well or better at.

      But what can religion tell us that other fields of study can not? How does one escape from religionism, which is the entirely unfounded claim that religion provides special unique kinds of knowledge that can not be had any other way?

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] which was just brought to my attention by an email. In a response to my last post – ”Uncle Eric goes all scientistic, argues for “ways of knowing” other than science” — Jerry Coyne points out […]

  2. […] The trio points out that no observer can be objective due to that observer’s partial knowledge, points out that historical events are not replicable, and that history deals with more factors than science typically does. However, as the good Jerry Coyne says, […]

  3. […] not satisfy the canonical rules of scientific inquiry and decision. And that includes morality. In one of his responses to my posts on scientism, Jerry Coyne suggested that we should do away with talk of morality […]

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