A misguided attack on scientism in Quillette

How many times do I have to criticize attacks on scientism, all of which use various permutations of the same three claims? Here they are:

1.) There are “other ways of knowing” that don’t involve science. These often involve “why” questions, like “Why am I here? (i.e. what is my purpose?)” or “Why is the universe here”?

2.) The scientific method (or rather, the use of empirical analysis and observation, confirmation, testing, making predictions, and so on) cannot be justified a priori by philosophy, and involves untestable or fallacious assumptions.

3.) Science is  trying to take over the humanities, and this unwarranted extension of science to places where it doesn’t belong is true scientism.

The article below that just appeared in Quillette rehashes the same tired old arguments, and I’m tired of refuting them. But I’ll take up the cudgels once again. To see my numerous and previous criticisms of scientism, go here.

Read the article by clicking on the screenshot below. It’s a criticism of an earlier piece by Bo and Ben Winegard (also in Quillette) called “In defense of scientism.”


The nice article by the Winegards uses a narrow definition of scientism: “science based social policy” (SBSP) which they say is “the view that social policy should be based on the best available theory and data; in other words, that social policy should be decided using the weight of the evidence. And that is all scientism is—the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry and should, therefore, be promoted.” Well, some would disagree with that. Others define scientism as “the extension of science beyond its proper bailiwick.” Two such construals of that are 1.) The claim that science devalues nonscientific realms like art and literature, and 2.) Science tries to construct an objective morality, saying that empirical investigation alone can tell us what and what is not desirable and good.

The Winegards address both of these construals, admitting that science can’t replace art and literature, which convey emotion and experience rather than empirical truth. But they also argue—and I agree—that science can helpfully infuse areas like sociology, literary criticism, and other areas that try to make claims about reality. And they agree with me that no, science can’t tell us objectively what is good and moral and desirable, for those are subjective preferences. But once you agree on those preferences—and in morality many of us do adopt similar consequentialist views—then science can tell us how to best achieve them; for how to achieve a desired goal is an empirical matter.

But Aaron Neil, a researcher at the Canadian think tank Cardus, wants to go beyond what the Winegards say, in particular conveying the first two tropes given at the top.  I’ve refuted both of these claims before, most extensively in my book Faith Versus Fact, but I’ll try again, and will also try—and probably fail—to be brief. My refutations of claims 1 and 2 as emitted by Neil are these:

1.) Neil fails to tell us a single bit of knowledge that wasn’t derived by science, though he bloviates at length about how this is possible. If there are “other ways of knowing”, what is the knowledge produced by those ways? If it’s so pervasive, Neil should be able to give us many examples. But he fails miserably, coming up dry.

2.) Indeed, you can’t justify philosophically the use of the empirical method to produce truths about the universe. But the justification is not by philosophy, but by usefulness. In other words, the scientific method works to tell us truths about the universe, and some version of it (the varieties of empirical methods that I call “science construed broadly”) are the only way to find out facts. To paraphrase theology, we justify science by works rather than faith.

Let’s take Neil’s two claims in reverse order (his quotations are indented):

1.) The scientific method can’t be justified by philosophy, and involves untestable (and sometimes failed) assumptions. Here are some of the philosophical attacks on science leveled by Neil:

a. Science is self-refuting in saying that “scientific truth is always provisional.” To wit:

Although the Winegards present an innocuous definition in their essay, they commonly drift into the less benign form of scientism identified by Hayek. The Winegards’ Hayekian scientism manifests itself early in their piece with the claim that “Truth is always provisional.” As they correctly note, scientific “truths” appear to be true so long as they provide “the best available theory” based on the evidence at hand. However, not all truths bear this hypothetical quality. Ironically, the very statement, “Truth is always provisional” is not itself a provisional truth claim. If it is always true that truth is always provisional, this statement is self-refuting. Not all truth claims are theoretical statements that are vulnerable to empirical falsification. Take the proposition, “there are no square circles.” This is not a hypothesis that is true so long as scientists do not discover a square circle. Logically, a circle can never be a square.

Do I need to waste time on this? It’s philosophical pilpul. Instead of saying “truth is always provisional”, let’s restate it as “science doesn’t tell us anything with absolute certainty, but we have degrees of certainty about various things, and are more confident about some scientific truths than others.”  That revision is sufficient to refute Neil’s philosophical twiddling.

b. Science is based on untestable metaphysical assumptions. To wit:

. . . as the greatest critics and advocates of modern science have argued, science is full of extra-scientific assumptions.

Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, saw that far from doing away with faith and metaphysics, the scientific enterprise of the “godless anti-metaphysicians” rested upon its own “metaphysical faith.” In The Gay Science, Nietzsche explains that science depends on dispelling personal convictions and replacing them with provisional hypotheses. However, Nietzsche argues, the scientific attempt to disallow a priori convictions is itself based on “some prior conviction…one that is so commanding and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself.” For scientific inquiry to occur, the conviction must “be affirmed in advance” that “‘Nothing is needed more than truth.’” Implicit in the modern “scientific spirit” is the metaphysical belief that “truth is divine.” Therefore, he argues, “there is simply no science ‘without presuppositions.’”

If Nietzsche provides an example of a moral assumption implicit in the scientific method, David Hume, the great skeptic and pioneer of the modern empirical project, provides a philosophical one. For Hume, “all inferences from experience suppose that the future will resemble the past.” To observe that a cause follows from an effect, and to conclude that the same effect will always follow from the same cause, assumes that nature remains the same. This assumption is impossible to prove. “It is impossible,” writes Hume, “that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance.” In other words, arguing for uniformity in nature based on experiences assumes that uniformity already exists. To prove the consistency of the causal relationship would require stepping outside of empirical experience.

Again, this is easily refuted. First, not all scientists think that the pursuit of truth is the most important thing they do. But as scientists it is our job to pursue truth and that’s all, though many of us do value truth above nearly everything. (For example, many of us would prefer to be told we have a fatal disease than be lied to.) Further, if you are interested in solving problems like “How can we stem global warming?” or “How can we quash this outbreak of measles?”, then science is the only way to go. The so-called a priori assumption that the empirical method is the best way to find truth is not a prior conviction, but the result of centuries of experience of what works and what doesn’t.

As far as Hume is concerned, science does not assume that the future will resemble the past. Indeed, evolutionary biologists assume that the future will NOT resemble the past. The resemblance we do see, and this is not an a priori conviction but also the result of experience, is that the laws of physics appear to remain unalterable in our universe, so in that sense future laws and events (i.e., as instantiated in the evolution of stars) can be assumed to resemble the past laws and events. We use uniformitarianism insofar as our experience tells us this applies. We do not assume it a priori.

It’s a common mistake of people like Neil to think that scientists once sat down and constructed a scientific method, complete with dictums like “value truth above all else”, “assume the future will be like the past”, and “empirical investigation, replication, and so on are the best ways to find empirical truth”. No, those procedures developed from experience when people learned about the best ways to find truth.

2.) There are other ways of knowing. I discuss this at length in Faith Versus Fact, concluding that if you want to know facts about our universe, the scientific procedure (“science construed broadly”) is the only way to proceed. This does not denigrate philosophy or mathematics, both of which are logical systems that are very important in doing science and in thinking hard about what you’re doing. Mathematics does not tell us truths about the universe, but truths about the logical system it comprises. That’s why we can sensibly speak of “proof” in mathematics but not in science. Philosophy, by teaching us how to think clearly and logically, can point out errors in our thinking and lead us to conclusions that aren’t obvious. One of them is the Euthyphro Issue, which teaches us that most religious people get their morality not from religion itself, but from secular and extra-scriptural sources. That is not a truth about the universe, but a logical (and valuable!) truth that comes from reflection and perhaps some observation of how people construe morality (the border between this kind of philosophy and science is very tenuous).

What are the other ways of knowing? Neil discusses two areas.

a. Ways to answer “why” questions. To wit:

A notable example of this scientistic shift from method into metaphysics comes from Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins who, like Dawkins, is a prolific author as well as a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University. During the question and answer period following a discussion of The God Delusion, Dawkins was asked whether science provides the answers to the great existential ‘why’ questions. In his reply, Dawkins declared that questions like “why does the universe exist” are “silly” questions that do not deserve answers. Peter Atkins makes a similar point in a recent article. He argues that questions like “Why are we here?” are “not real questions because they are not based on evidence.” Real questions, according to Atkins, are questions “open to scientific elucidation.”

Unfortunately, for Dawkins and Atkins, the belief that all questions must be open to scientific explanation is a metaphysical commitment, not a scientific one. Science does not say that only scientific questions are worth pursuing. Nor does science say that every aspect of reality can be explained by science. Lurking beneath their rejection of the non-scientific lies a fundamentally extra-scientific worldview. In their dismissal of the deepest questions concerning human existence, Dawkins and Atkins speak not as dispassionate scientists, but as partisans to their own philosophical picture of reality.

This can be dispelled easily when we realize that what Dawkins and Atkins (both scientists) are talking about as “fake questions” are “questions that cannot be answered with any certainty.” They are construing “real questions” as questions that have answers that we can all agree on, and can have some certainty about the answers. And for those kinds of questions, Dawkins and Atkins are correct, for only science can answer questions that have answers like that. Sure, you can say, “I had a vision of Jesus,” but there is no way to verify it. Beyond this kind of subjective “truth”, we must turn to science. If questions like “Why are we here?” do have “correct” answers, or answers that most of us can agree on, then pray tell us what the answers are, Dr. Neil! For religions, which occupy themselves with such questions, cannot agree of any answers.

b. Areas that constitute “other ways of knowing.” Disturbingly, besides philosophy, which I’ve already discussed, the only field mentioned by Neil is theology. (I’m not sure whether he thinks theology can really tell us any truths.):

Science is not the only form of knowledge. There are valid non-scientific ways of approaching reality. In fact, before the empirical science of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, science (from the Latin scientia) simply meant “knowledge.” For the ancients, natural philosophy (the rough pre-modern equivalent to modern science) and philosophy were ‘sciences’ because each intellectual discipline contributed towards knowledge of reality. Not only were philosophy and theology considered legitimate ways of knowing, the medievals placed natural philosophy below philosophy and theology. It may be tempting to dismiss the medieval hierarchy as an example of pre-modern ignorance. Before too quickly discounting it, consider first the following explanation behind the ordering provided by Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologian-philosophers of the Middle Ages: “Lower sciences,” Aquinas writes, “presuppose conclusions proved in the higher sciences.”

And that’s about it: philosophy and theology (“natural philosophy” is just another word for “science”). Neil doesn’t mention literature or art or music or any of the other classic but bogus “ways of knowing.” (I’m not denigrating these areas, but claiming, as I did in my book, that they are ways of feeling rather than ways of knowing.)

Again, it’s extremely telling that despite Neil’s repeated claim that “science is not the only form of knowledge,” he cannot give us a single example of “knowledge” that comes from outside science. That alone invalidates this part of his argument.

For further discussion of the fallacious “other ways of knowing” claim, read pp. 185-196 of Faith Versus Fact, and for a longer discussion of the scientism canard, read pages 196-224—a section that goes over many of the issues discussed by Neil as well as the Winegards.



  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    If something works, who cares what it is or how it is defined – science, humanities, or sports – doesn’t matter, if one leads to better understanding that’s what matters.

    • Murali
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Right. So the question is what it means to say we know something, or what makes a good explanation. Mathematics and science, to some degree, are the results of our effort to answer the questions.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Accurate predictions
        Ease of communication across borders

    • DrBrydon
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I think the question is, How do we know that something works? My anti-measles amulet might work, or it might just look like it works because I’ve never been exposed to measles. Saying the something works based on just personal experience is wide-open to confirmation bias.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        We experience a world where smallpox is eradicated. Science and medicine explain how it was possible. By any measure of experience and observation, it worked. There could still be confirmation bias by reading the same Wikipedia article and remarking that nobody in your town has smallpox but the eradication still worked. Confirmation bias ought to be measurable here.

        Sports were also ongoing the whole time but they didn’t do anything to eradicate smallpox. Sports didn’t work.

        • Murali
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          ‘Sports were also ongoing the whole time but they didn’t do anything to eradicate smallpox. Sports didn’t work.’

          I do agree. In fact, that has been my main criticism of baseball for quite some time, quite apart from not having done anything to help the US trade negotiations with China. What a uselss sport.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

            After some thought about what I wrote, wanted to add this :

            The measurement of confirmation bias is my own theoretical speculation that could be wrong of course but I don’t see what would prevent some estimate of it because it’s done all the time with other calculations. I just don’t know I’m practice how it would be done.

  2. Murali
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I am still trying to understand the article. Would someone explain what’s meant by ‘knowing’ in the passage below?

    “Not only were philosophy and theology considered legitimate ways of knowing, the medievals placed natural philosophy below philosophy and theology.”

    • loren russell
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      The ‘medievals’ seem to have had in mind that those committing ‘errors’ in philosophy and theology were more worthy of being burned at the stake than errors in natural philosophy.

      Though heretics in the latter field might be shown the tools of torture.

  3. Greg Geisler
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    As I read the Quillette piece yesterday I grinned and thought to myself “JAC is going to blow his cork!” Your responses to this kind of drivel are one of the main reasons I visit your site. I know you must get tired of writing them but I appreciate these take-downs and always look forward to them. Thank you.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Same here, that piece is deeply confused. I think Jerry is outstanding in going into detailed rebuttal, I admire his energy and persistence.

    • A C Harper
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Rather than seeing the article as an attack on scientism I thought it made more sense (but not very much) as a personal defence of “other ways of knowing”.

      “Other ways of knowing” is a phrase that I detest since it almost always means “personal experiences that make my opinions worthy”.

  4. Posted May 12, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with a Church of Scotland minister recently. He decried ‘god of the gaps’ stuff but said the beginning of the universe was different because science can only extend to the beginning of time, not beyond that. I said that doesn’t mean theology has dominion there, and he agreed, but said philosophy can illuminate such matters. But the point, of course, is that whatever we say about ‘before’ or ‘beyond’ the universe it must be based on scientific knowledge (if they aren’t entirely meaningless in the first place). To carve out this one area as a place where ‘god of the gaps’ isn’t a fallacy is completely ad hoc, a last act of desperate refuge when so many other gaps have been filled in with naturalism.

    Anyway, he was a nice guy, and it was the first time I’ve shared a pint with a man of the church. Though he has some silly views about how ‘new atheism’ is derived from fundamentalist Protestantism (he’s written books on the matter and taught a course on new atheism’s allies and critics in the school of divinity here at Edinburgh).

    And I’ve still to read Faith Versus Fact, and mean to; WEIT was great but the former languishes with the many other books on my shelf which glare at me with disdain for not having read them yet whenever I go into my study…

    And as a humanities student, I abhor the ‘scientism’ canard and some of the failures of my discipline, the most egregious of which are postmodernism, intersectionality, and ‘theory’. Bleurgh! I’m a grumpy old man really.

    • Murali
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      What did he mean by these phrases?

      ‘beginning of the universe’

      ‘beginning of time’

      ‘… but said philosophy can illuminate such matters.’

      It is true that philosophical discourse can illuminate an issue. For example, we ask what ‘beginning’ means in the phrases above. However, does the CoS minister also contend that that philosophy can provide an explanation?

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        As I suggested we were a few drinks down, so the memories are a touch hazy.

        I think he was simply trying to leave a gap open, that philosophy not science (and, though he denied it, I can only assume theology) has domain over questions of ‘where the universe came from’, ‘how did it begin’ etc. One of his points was that however far back science pushes to the Big Bang it cannot go beyond the boundaries of space and time and thus can’t answer those questions. But again this seems a bit of ad hoc special pleading, and if those questions can even be answered, and if they can even mean anything at all, then it’ll be science which answers them, not philosophy (which can illuminate) and certainly not theology, which has nothing to offer. And ultimately there’s no reason whatever to think that any sort of supernatural being was involved in the creation of the universe, and it raises more scientific (and philosophical) questions than it answers.

        And he also gave me some tosh about why he believed the Biblical story of the resurrection. Interestingly he did say one thing would falsify his beliefs, which was good. If Jesus’s body was ever found then for him it would refute the resurrection and ascension into heaven and he would therefore admit Christianity was false. So the good minister at least is open to the falsification of his beliefs (he’s also not a creationist or anything either; he’s committed to the literal truth of the resurrection so not quite a Sophisticated Theologian but still it’s a rather watered down Christianity).

        • Murali
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          ‘…watered down Christianity’

          He sounds like someone from CofE.

          ‘If Jesus’s body was ever found then for him it would refute the resurrection and ascension into heaven and he would therefore admit Christianity was false.’

          Right. The church’s case has no body — that gap is crucial.

          I am reevaluating my approach to things as well: Maybe a couple of pints is another way of knowing. I’m off to try it out.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          “If Jesus’s body was ever found”

          Slight but obvious practical objection – how would anyone ever prove it was Jesus’s body? That seems to me to be insurmountable.

          Even if Jesus was exhaustively documented by detailed contemporary records (which he isn’t), how could one ever prove, by DNA analysis or any other way, that a given body was the same person?

          Maybe I’m taking a hypothetical debating point too literally?


          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

            … if only the Romans had thought to take the fingerprints of their convicted criminals – damp clay would have done – and preserve the tablets, now, history (as it is currently known) might be very different. 😉


          • Posted May 12, 2019 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

            True! But he just meant, I suppose, that hypothetically it would falsify his beliefs. Which is something at least!

        • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          Unfortunately, this view has been brought on by bad (including by physicists themselves) popularizations of physics. The big bang is a purely local event – there is no reason to accord it any special status more than you’d set your favourite candy store as the spatial location 0, etc.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I think Bertrand Russell would have agreed with the ‘atheism is derived from protestantism’, albeit not fundamentalist protestantism (and ‘new’ atheism was not a trope yet).
      Now I do not really agree with the Great Russell there: there are many atheists emanating from non-christian cultures, such as Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and many others, and even Islam (Omar Khayyam) have had many atheists emanating.

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Agreed, I think there is something to it (think Hitchens’s ‘I’m a Protestant atheist’ or Dawkins’s love of the KJV) but the minister’s attempts smack of trying to belittle atheists and atheism, to bring them under the fold of a Christian tradition (like those who try to give the credit for science to religion, another thing my interlocutor briefly tried to do I think). As an anthropologist who has issues with the minister’s arguments also mentioned, he is quick to seize on statements like Hitchens and Dawkins’s above, but ignores contradictory evidence, like the Humanist/sceptical tradition going back to Lucretius and others (a whole chapter of God is not Great is devoted to this ‘finer tradition’). So this idea holds little water and ignores the much more ancient and deeper roots of the intellectual tradition which inspires atheists while overemphasising some parts of that to score some cheap points.

        • Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          I’m also reminded of Grayling’s ‘The God Argument’ which traces the Humanist tradition from the Greeks through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the present day. The reverend Liam Fraser needs to pay closer attention! And yes, of course, there are other non-Christian/pre-Christian sources for this tradition, such as Omar Khayyam and Spinoza.

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          You are absolutely right there.Christians are always quick to bring things under the fold. In sense Russell did the same, by ignoring other cultures.
          I once read, well wrestled through*, a book by a professor Dethier, “the history of atheism” (or so) that indeed confirms atheism goes back to even further than Lucretius.

          *I’ve never read a book (and it is not even voluminous) that has so much interesting info put in a close to unreadable form. Still recommended, though, if you can handle a tough steak.

    • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      There *is* no beginning of time in an absolute sense, which immediately renders his view impossible.

  5. Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    “Dawkins and Atkins (both scientists) are talking about as ‘fake questions’ are ‘questions that cannot be answered with any certainty.’ They are construing ‘real questions’ as questions that have answers that we can all agree on, and can have some certainty about the answers.”

    There is a subtle but significant shift here from the passive voice—“questions that cannot be answered with any certainty”—to the active voice—“questions that have answers we can all agree on.” The former is talking about, or at least includes, personal conviction—what you or I or any given individual can be certain about; the latter is talking about consensus—what can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of others.

    I would venture that there are “real questions” based on personal experience about which we are certain but that we would be at a loss to persuade others. Certainty and demonstrability are entirely different concepts. We may not like subjectivity, but neither can we do without it.

    • Murali
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      ‘I would venture that there are “real questions” based on personal experience about which we are certain but that we would be at a loss to persuade others.’

      What would be an example?

      When you say ‘we would be at a loss to persuade others’, do you mean persuade others as to the genuine (real) nature of the question? Or do you mean persuading others to accept your answer to the question?

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure that they are ‘real’ questions or not, but What is your favourite colour? or Do you live your children? would be questions that would be difficult to persuade someone you were answering truthfully.

        • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          Love your chikdren, that is.

          • Nicolaas Stempels
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            That was understood (you live your children, but love your chikdren, obviously 🙂 ).
            Science gives a pretty good (and obvious) answer to the question why we love our children (despite Robert Trivers’ reservations* 🙂 ).
            Do we actually have a “favourite colour”? I’m not aware I do. Yesterday we had an orange clouded evening sky with the blue inbetween nearly a deep turquoise, as strong as if caused by lysergic acid. Still, would that be my favourite colour? Not really. Are there people that actually really have favoured colours?

            * He actually goes quite deep into the question, absolutely worth reading him.

          • Steve Pollard
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

            Live/love, children/chikdren, who cares?!

            I think a partial answer to the conundrum of whether “Do you love your children?” is a real question or not is to ask “What if you had to prove it in a court of law?” You are then led straight into issues of evidence and inference, which are of course within the realm of science.

            I think I might even add – though I haven’t fully thought it through – that if you have a personal conviction that can’t be expressed in a way that can be tested by an appeal to evidence, then you are not justified in relying on that personal conviction yourself.

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        “What would be an example?”

        Whether my four-year-old grandson loves me, or vice versa. Far from being a “fake” question, I would consider this more “real” than, say, whether climate change is caused by humans, and I am more certain of the answer. I would, however, be at a loss to make you certain of either the “real” nature of the question or of the answer. Just one example; I suspect you could come up with others from your own experience.

        • Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          I’ve discussed this claim in Faith Versus Fact, using “my wife loves me” as an example. If this is to be more than a subjective feeling (which of course can itself be, and usually is, based on evidence), then it becomes an empirical question for people who want to know if your wife loves you. That would be decided on evidence: behavior and actions.

          • Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

            You’re right that other people may deduce that my grandson loves me based on the evidence of behaviors and actions, and even that my subjective feeling derives in part from such evidence. But the level of certainty in these two instances is decidedly different, because theirs is based on external observation and mine is based on internal participation. I’m not sure how one would characterize or measure that difference, but I have no doubt that it is “real.” And important.

            • Murali
              Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

              Is it plausible that you could conclude that your grandson loves you, while other people, having watched the two of you over a long period of time, could conclude that he does not? If so, would you have evidence you would not be able to communicate to them?

              • Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                “Is it plausible that you could conclude that your grandson loves you. . .”

                First, I don’t “conclude” that my grandson loves me. It’s not a matter of deduction.

                “If so, would you have evidence you would not be able to communicate to them?”

                Second, I would have evidence I would not be able to communicate to them regardless of what they concluded. That’s my point–that deduction and experience are different animals.

              • Murali
                Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                Is it possible for a person to experience that someone loves him or her and have it be determined as a delusion by a psychiatrist? So the deluded one would ‘just know’ that she or he is being loved while the evidence (gathered externally) suggests otherwise.

          • Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

            Not to belabor the point, but I can deduce from your behavior and actions that you love your ducks, but my deduction will never approach the level of certainty that you derive from your experience. I conclude that you love your ducks; you just know it.

            • Murali
              Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

              Do you just mean that you can’t read other people’s minds?

            • Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

              Yes, but that’s what I call subjective knowledge, and my definition of knowledge requires that it be publicly available (see definitions in FvF. For my love of ducks to be “knowledge” to more than just me, there must be empirical evidence.

            • darrelle
              Posted May 13, 2019 at 7:39 am | Permalink

              It’s not that Jerry just knows that he loves his ducks. He is the one experiencing the state of mind of “loving ducks.” The only reason he could be said to be more certain than anyone else is because he is a first hand observer. If Jerry were hooked up to functional MRI equipment when he visits the pond and catches first sight of Honey then there would by a record that anyone else could then examine and be as certain as Jerry that he loves his ducks.

  6. Murali
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    What did he mean by these phrases?

    ‘beginning of the universe’

    ‘beginning of time’

    ‘… but said philosophy can illuminate such matters.’

    It is true that philosophical discourse can illuminate an issue. For example, we ask what ‘beginning’ means in the phrases above. However, does the CoS minister also contend that that philosophy can provide an explanation?

    • Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      I’d like to know what “illuminate” even means?

      • Murali
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        Right. I understood it to mean ‘clarify’. Perhaps reformulate a statement to make it amenable to analysis.

        E.g., Someone might say ‘the big bang says that the universe came out of nothing’. We could then have a discussion which would result in an understanding that the Standard Model of Cosmology merely describes an expanding universe from an early time; that it does not even apply at very small times; that it is not clear what ‘nothing’ means; that conservation of energy need not apply to the standard model.

        And with the more seasoned philosophers, we could talk at length about what it means to say ‘the big bang says’.

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Right. Philosophy can help with our preferences but if a philosopher comes up with a fact, it is just a philosopher doing science.

        • grasshopper
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

          … if a philosopher comes up with a fact, it is just a philosopher doing science.

          That is a great phrase. It reminds me of the observation that if a treatment using alternative medicine works, then we can just call it medicine.

          • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

            By the same token, when a scientist does very general investigations (particularly “theoretical” ones), she is doing philosophy. For example, Galileo in _The Assayer_, or Newton in the “System of the World” part of the Principia, etc.

    • Murali
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      I was trying to respond to comment #4. It seems that I goofed it 😦

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    And that is all scientism is—the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry and should, therefore, be promoted.”

    The folks carping about “scientism” remind me of nothing so much as the old-fart baseball scouts in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball sitting around the table bitchin’ that Big Data (as developed by “sabermetricians” like Bill James) would never replace their old-wives’-tales approach to determining ballplayers’ actual market value in the major leagues.

    Here’s a clip of one of those scenes from the movie version of Lewis’s book:

    • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Yes, a lot of this is just people afraid of science eating the world. Scientists respond with a mix of “Good!” and “Don’t worry. It will never eat the whole world.”

  8. Harrison
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Episode 11 of Jacob Bronowski’s television series The Ascent of Man, titled “Knowledge or Certainty,” pits the two concepts against one another beautifully. The final takeaway is that certainty is overrated. Science’s “provisional knowledge” is preferable.

    • SecMilChap
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for citing Bronowski’s series, and thanks to Jerry for sallying forth to oppose the Barbarians Of Ignorance yet again. Using “provisional knowledge” is a good way to make an antenna (considering ‘wavelength’) and not the additional things known about photons. I often choke at “other ways of knowing”, since they’re usually useless. Maths and philosophy are useful, tho’, especially in lending their support to the scientific method.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted May 13, 2019 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      I, too, thank you for citing Bronowski 11, ‘Knowledge or Certainty.’ The scene near the end where he visits Auschwitz, bends over in the muck and lifts a handful of ashen mud toward his face, while repeating the words of, believe it or not, Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’–well, this is one of the most moving moments I’ve ever seen on film. I very much admired Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation;’ but I loved Bronowski’s answering complement to it.

  9. Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Arthur Koestler cleared up this “other ways of knowing” nonsense in 1950 — referring to “other ways of experiencing”, (artistic, for example), but not “knowing”. People should learn from him on that. It would circumvent this unnecessary discussion.

    And the idea of “scientism” is of course merely a propagandistic move rather than a sincere attempt to deal with the conflict between reason and revelation (or the story-telling impulse). And of course, anyone who practices scientism can only be called a scientist — thereby impugning the entire field.

    Anti-scientists always fail to recognise how science actually works. They experience ‘facts’ as an affront to their ‘knowledge’; whereas scientists see facts as simply those things about which we can be so certain that it would be perverse and a waste of time to check them again. They form the basis of progress. And anti-scientists always speak as if such progress simply doesn’t exist.

    Ironically, the only people who think ‘facts’ *are* set in stone are theologians and devotees of “other ways of knowing”. (And their fields of inquiry of course do not make any progress at all, despite their claims.)

    Scientists, on the other hand, locate ‘facts’ as one end of a sliding scale of certainty, with ‘speculation’ at the other end of it. A good paper or exposition always indicates where along this scale a piece of information falls.

    Science is always presented by anti-scientsts as just a bunch of dogmatically asserted ‘facts’, whereas in fact the work of science occurs towards the ‘speculation’ end of the scale, using facts as stepping stones.

    Anti-scientists miss this entirely, and simply place their own “knowings” all down the ‘fact’ end of the scale. They have to do this, as introducing qualifiers to it would be a) impossible, as there’s no way to test any of it; b) because much of it would fall off the end of scale way past ‘speculation’; and c) because introducing the appropriate qualifiers would immediately reveal their ‘knowing’ as specious.

  10. Mike Anderson
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Aaron Neil:

    Science articulates theoretical truths discovered through quantifiable investigation. Metaphysical statements are concerned with the character of reality.

    Science isn’t concerned with the character of reality?

    Quillette is turning out to be a quite a pile of tedious sophomoric thinly disguised religious apologetics. The same old anti-science drivel recast in different words over and over and over…

    • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I respectfully suggest that Quillette should be given a break. Their mission is to air very important controversies not reinforce some group’s worldview. It is all about the discussion. Sure, it could be argued that Neil’s article didn’t have much merit but not every article needs to be earth-shaking. It was at least worth our host commenting on it.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        Sure, it could be argued that Neil’s article didn’t have much merit but not every article needs to be earth-shaking.

        Lack of merit or lack of earth-shaking-ness isn’t the problem – articles like the Andrew Neil on in question are deceptive, tired (old, failed arguments), and sloppy. It’s not as if this is the first time Quillette published one of these anti-science articles.

        Reminiscent of the people that insist “both sides of the evolution controversy” be taught.

        And there’s stuff like this, which could have come straight out of Breitbart:


        My own view is that it is quite possible that global warming is caused by humans; and, if so, we need to do something about it. But given the inconclusive state of contemporary climate science, we can’t be sure; and, until we absolutely do know the truth, we should hold off on drastic action.

    • Keith Douglas
      Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Both. See above about hypergeneral theories.

      Of course, the problem is one can develop metaphysics independently of the input from other fields, but it will be sterile, boring, and worst of all, almost certainly wrong.

  11. Posted May 12, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Once again, the difference between a religious and a scientific worldview is demonstrated (and I don’t know if Aaron Neil is actually religious, but his worldview is): the religious person appeals to authorities, and the scientist appeals to logic and evidence. Thus Neil holds up “his” authorities (Nietzsche, Aquinas) and attacks “our” authorities (Dawkins, Atkins), instead of dealing with the actual evidence, which is that science works.

    Hey, I have an authority, P.Z. Myers:

    …science gets the job done, while religion makes excuses. Sometimes they are very pretty excuses that capture the imagination of the public, but ultimately, when you want to win a war or heal a dying child or get rich from a discovery or explore Antarctica, you turn to science and reason, or you fail.

    • Peter N
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Aaron Neil writes for an outfit called Convivium, which “is an online space that brings together citizens of differing convictions and religious confessions to contend for the role of faith in our common life”. Uh-huh.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      Can’t help but be amused by your choice of authority.

      However, I will happily admit that, in that quote at least, he was talking a lot of sense.



    • Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      He confirmed that he’s a Catholic in the comments of his article. No surprise there.


  12. Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    A good post about a bad article, IMHO. Just a few observations:

    “science is not the only form of knowledge”

    I think this comes from disagreement over the definition of “knowledge”. People Aaron Neil tend to assume it is synonymous with “ideas”, whereas scientists assume that knowledge consists of ideas that can, and have, been tested empirically.

    “He argues that questions like “Why are we here?” are “not real questions because they are not based on evidence.” Real questions, according to Atkins, are questions “open to scientific elucidation.””

    I think Dawkins and Atkins are just wrong here. “Why are we here?” is a very reasonable question for scientists to examine. Many physics theorists certainly devote book chapters to the subject. Those that think it is a silly question imagine that scientists thinking about it will never produce testable hypotheses but that seem unclear to me. Perhaps they have not so far but that doesn’t mean that they will never.

    • Murali
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      ‘I think this comes from disagreement over the definition of “knowledge”’

      I completely agree. That is something that I have been trying to clarify: what they mean by ‘knowing’.

      ‘People Aaron Neil tend to assume it is synonymous with “ideas”,…’

      I see. Maybe that is what they mean. Do they mean something trivial like: science is not the only area of study that offers ideas about the nature of the universe? I would agree with that, but we eventually have to wonder if our ideas are right or wrong, don’t we?

      It almost seems like the human race asked these questions a long time ago and took the analytical path of science and math.

      I have been trying to find out what people like Karen Armstrong mean by ‘religious truth’. She does not make it entirely clear in the one book of hers (The case for God) that I read; not that she makes anything else clear. She seems to be an expert at clarifying by muddling.

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know Karen Armstrong but I imagine “religious truth” to be what various religions declare to be true. It is used by those who maintain that religion and science can coexist. As they see it, scientific truth and religious truth may conflict but they can coexist if one simply ignores the cognitive dissonance as many religious believers do.

        • Murali
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          ‘As they see it, scientific truth and religious truth may conflict but they can coexist if one simply ignores the cognitive dissonance as many religious believers do.’

          Crikey! You mean some people admit that there exists a conflict and that they ignoring it?

          I once had a long conversation with a woman who spoke highly of religious truth. The position that I finally (after much effort) persuaded her to state vaguely was that: She was a Buddhist; She did not believe in reincarnation or karma in a literal sense; Buddhism is beyond the reach of science; Buddhism contains religious truths, not scientific truths; She can’t tell me what they are because they are beyond her as well; She is sure that Christianity is wrong but can’t prove it; If she were wrong, she has no way of knowing that she is wrong; She wants to go home; I am sitting on her phone.

          I had to change my position for her 😦

          • Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

            Sounds like a good conversation to avoid.

          • Posted May 13, 2019 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

            Wow, you had a conversation “once” with a religious believer. Good for you. Try reading the very short and rather poetic book, “Religion in the Making”, by mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Its fun and someone not easy to blow off. Also, his “Science and the Modern World”; a classic on how the “real” and the “ideal” are not so easy to separate. As we do so often on this site.

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        I love Armstrong, a truly devoted lady! Yes, she is trying ti redeem something from traditional religion. I think it is some ‘deepity’, as Jerry would say, that “All is One”. She feels it, she tries to live it. I think she is ultimately Right and the ONE is not the One of Reductionist Causation, but of something more complex. If this is ‘Deepity”, and this blog goes for “Superificiality” in trying to ignore it.

    • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      ‘Why?’ implies purpose. When scientists ask ‘Why?’ it’s ‘Why are the rules of physics such that they are?’ not ‘Why are we here?’

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        I was interpreting the “Why?” question as “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Many scientists have written on that subject. It is arguable that this is just scientists doing philosophy or metaphysics but I still contend that scientists may come up with actual scientific theories to shed light on the question, perhaps even testable ones.

        • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          This one has been falsified, in a way, since Democritus, who may have been first to realize that there cannot have been nothing. Of course, this was before religions got in the way and ruined brains, but …

          (Even Leibniz, who I regard as the second smartest guy to ever live, falls down on this exact topic.)

    • alexander
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      I think a question “Why are we here” is “loaded” and does not make sense because it presupposes somebody (a god?) or something making a choice. Science does not make choices, the evolution of life is nor the result of choices, but of logical consequences

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        I interpret the question differently, more along the lines of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

        • alexander
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

          “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

          An answer to this question is hopeless. Why is 1 + 1 equal to 2?

          • stuartcoyle
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

            For the answer to “Why is 1 + 1 equal to 2” you need to read Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.

            • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

              Or better, a modern presentation.

              • phoffman56
                Posted May 13, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

                Here’s the complete “modern presentation”:
                START: 1+1 is the same object as 2 because the object named 2 is DEFINED to be 1+1.END

                Or, some stuff about the “successor function”, its definition, that 2 again is DEFINED to be the successor of 1 and that the operation + has such-and-such a definition involving the successor function…

                In the original, maybe it should have been asked why 2+3 is the same object as 4+1, in order that there be some content, however trivial, beyond mere definitions.

                I know some of you are unwilling to admit the existence of mathematical objects. My commiserations, e.g. with actually giving a cogent answer to these questions without sounding like Derrida or Wittgenstein or some other time waster!

                Actually Keith (or maybe just stated in jest) if you can come up with at least one person who has published 5 or 10 mathematical research papers in reputable journals (surely not Bunge) and convincingly disagrees with the first paragraph or two, and also send me a mailing address, I’ll send you a $10 bill (but CDN, not US)!

              • Posted May 13, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                It’s not that simple. Many mathematical systems define 1 + 1 = 2 using a successor function but that lives only in the world of formal systems. 1 + 1 = 2 also is some sort of absolute truth. If I take one rock and another rock and say I have two rocks, that seems to have nothing to do with successor functions. Its truth doesn’t seem to require a formal system to support it. It’s a universal truth.

              • phoffman56
                Posted May 13, 2019 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

                Well then Paul, tell me two things:
                What do you mean by 2 rocks?
                What do you mean by (1+1) rocks?

                I expect noticeably different answers now for there to be any content to your contention.

                Otherwise, there is no content; just essentially identical physical definitions where they are adjectives; that reflects the mathematical definition of the mathematical noun 2 as another name for the mathematical object for which (1+1) is another name, as I had claimed.

              • Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

                phoffman56: I don’t really follow your “What do you mean” questions but I can try to explain what I mean again using different words.

                When a mathematician works with 1 + 1 = 2, they are working within a formal system: a set of symbols and rules for combining them. They don’t care about the “real world” or what physicists think. If a scientist can use the mathematician’s work to describe reality, that’s their business.

                On the other hand, we humans have an intuitive understanding of counting that applies when divvying up the proceeds from today’s hunt, for example. The phrase 1 + 1 – 2 means something in this domain as well, and it obviously does have some correspondence with the mathematician’s concept, but it says something about the real world, not the mathematician’s formal systems.

                So, when we say 1 + 1 = 2, what it means depends on who is saying it.

                This is a common problem. For example, Godel’s Incompleteness theorems apply to formal systems but they’re often hijacked to say something about nature and the real world. This is incorrect reasoning because nature is not a formal system. (Or if it is, we haven’t yet determined its symbols and rules.)

              • phoffman56
                Posted May 14, 2019 at 9:02 am | Permalink

                Trying to abbreviate my ‘beating the dead horse’, the “It” in your earlier last sentence must say the proposition that [having 2 rocks] and [having (1+1) rocks] are equivalent. So without answering my two questions with noticeably different answers, calling “It” a “universal truth” seems grossly exaggerated. Different phrases, defined identically, being equivalent is not exactly earth-shaking.

              • Posted May 14, 2019 at 10:32 am | Permalink

                I am not happy calling 2 and 1+1 as “equivalent”. They both calculate out to the same number, of course, but that has meaning only in particular mathematical systems in which + and “equivalent” have particular definitions. They are not equivalent in every sense. For example, one indicates a numerical operation and the other does not.

              • phoffman56
                Posted May 14, 2019 at 10:56 am | Permalink

                Not the names equivalent, but rather the assertions bracketed thus : [ ].
                And equivalent simply means ‘if and only if’. The names (1+1) and 2 are names for the SAME mathematical object, by definition. Those with no acceptnce of the existence of mathematical objects can easily get themselves tangled up with pseudo-problems.

              • Posted May 14, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink

                I disagree and stand by what I have said already. Statements in mathematics are always only relevant within a particular mathematical system which provides context and meaning. In mathematics, 1+1 is not always equivalent to 2. Even when it is equivalent to 2, that equivalence is defined by a particular mathematical system. This is not discussed in grade school arithmetic class, of course, but it is still the case. When children are taught to count, they are being taught a mathematical model for reality but, as implied by “model”, the numbers and the things being counted are not the same thing.

              • Posted May 15, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

                Usually in a foundations of mathematics context one goes a bit further back than (the implicit) Peano axioms. They are theorems in many set theories, for example.

                Personally, as a mathematical fictionalist I don’t really care metaphysically speaking which level one starts at (unlike the Platonists, who do owe us an explanation of the objects they supposedly believe in), but there are epistemic reasons (and aesthetic ones, I think) for unifying more than the numbers under set theory,for example. Or category theory. (I don’t know enough about which would work out better, though most mathematicians seem to prefer the former, for whatever reason(s).)

              • phoffman56
                Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                I certainly agree, Keith, that ‘1+1=2’, in a foundation of mathematics based on set theory, is not immediate by definition: as I’m sure you know, maybe also others, what is needed is the easy job of specifying a bijection from any old set whose cardinality is 2, e.g.
                {/phi , {/phi}}, to one whose cardinality is 1+1. But that same set we just wrote down is fine, since /phi and {/phi} are distinct disjoint sets. So the bijection is the most trivial thing possible, the identity function.

                “..Platonists…owe us an explanation of the objects they supposedly believe in..” Agreed.

                As again you know, Tegmark’s advocated position makes this easy, in a way. His objects are the mathematical structures, period, there ain’t nuthin else. His argumant, IIRC, says that surely all of them exist if any one of them does. But physical reality in its entirety is nothing other than one such mathematical structure. Others: Please do not confuse that with a mathematical
                (axiomatic) system, or a mathematical model of a system.

                So the problem to me is to say just what is a mathematical structure. Surely there would be one such structure, neither less nor more, which is the natural numbers, would there not? So it is not so obvious.

                I imagine you had met the wife of the philosopher Bunge, the mathematician Bunge, in Montreal also. She likely would have given a strong argument in favour of categories as opposed to sets.

              • Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

                “Please do not confuse that with a mathematical (axiomatic) system, or a mathematical model of a system.”

                Tes. This is what I’ve been saying in several comments. These are all different things.

              • phoffman56
                Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                Sorry about 2 things (about ‘2’!) in my last:
                Should have been
                ‘{/phi} and {{/phi}}’, outside {}’s were missing, and union of those 1-element sets give the required (1+1)-element set.
                Should have used \ not /, but just couldn’t find that backslash on my keyboard, due to old age and no LATEX papers written for ages.

            • Murali
              Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

              Starting from the ZF axioms, identifying 0 with the empty set, and using suc(x) = union(x, {x}), we may define the addition function:

              add(p, 0) = p
              add(p, suc(q)) = suc(add(p, q))

              Then we may do:

              add(1+1) = add(1 + suc(0)) = suc(add(1 + 0)) = suc(1) = 2

              I see this as an a posteriori formulation that is consistent with our intuition — for example, we identify 0 with the empty set. The empty set is more of an abstract mathematical construct. We also define 0 to be the additive identity.

              I don’t think the above formulation unique.

              I associate the physical act of counting with an abstraction as well. We can imagine counting forever even though it is not a practical thing to be doing.

              As far as can be seen now: It seems that mathematical constructs can be used to model some aspects of nature; not all of math need be similarly applicable; not all of nature may be conducive to mathematical modelling.

              • Murali
                Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

                I also wonder if our mathematical intuition developed (and continues to develop) through our interaction with nature. If that is the case, then it might not be unreasonable that mathematics is effective in the natural sciences.

          • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            It isn’t hopeless – in fact, it has an answer – the question presupposes that there could have been nothing. Since there couldn’t have been, there’s nothing to explain.

            • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

              That’s not an answer that would satisfy me. That we exist is not at issue. We want to know why we exist, not just that we exist. What exactly is existence anyway? When physicists can consider multiple universes, the creation of new universes, and whether the interior of a black hole is a separate universe, this is not an unreasonable question.

              • Posted May 15, 2019 at 11:31 am | Permalink

                Those are distinct questions. The “why is there something rather than nothing?” question doesn’t seem to bear on those at all. (And I prefer, losingly, “universe” in its etymological sense, but …)

            • phoffman56
              Posted May 13, 2019 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

              I didn’t really follow, Keith, but maybe it is similar to the following:

              To show that the proposition ‘Nothing exists” is false, we have:
              a) The notion ‘exist’ exists, this example showing the required falsity;
              b) the notion ‘exist’ does not exist, showing that there can be no meaningful proposition up there, and no need to discuss its falsity nor anything else about this non-existing proposition.

              Note my terrible mixing up of object language with discussing language (AKA metalanguage) above, but this whole meaningless question was brought up (by Leibniz, was it not?) long before the clarity was first demonstrated by Frege concerning not getting tangled up re language levels. Godel thought Russell and Whitehead were pretty poor on that aspect, despite following Frege.

              • Posted May 15, 2019 at 11:34 am | Permalink

                Leibniz seems to have been the first, yes. But even he didn’t mean it – his god (assuming the rest of the system) cannot but exist, so there must be something, even by his own light.

                My argument is from conservation laws and (finally) realizing that “universe” was being equivocated on in most discussions of the Big Bang. It was Grunbaum’s paper on theistic misrepresenting cosmology that finally clinched it for me. (These understandings are routine enough, apparently, in contemporary philosophy of physics, they can go uncited and just alluded to in passing, as in a recent article in Philosophy of Science.)

    • Кузман
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      I would contend that “Why are we here?” is a silly question, insofar as it’s only ever phrased that way when the “why” sought is a purpose or intention, which then requires an intender.

      It proceeds from the assumption of a purpose and a purposer, though the posers of such questions are generally comfortable assuming no special raison d’être for the overwhelming majority of objects, animals, and occurrences in their everyday lives.

      • Кузман
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

        It still seems like you’re trying to sneak in a double question. If you’re asking “What processes resulted in the universe we observe?”, that’s a legitimate question, I guess, but it seems like you’re specifically trying to leave room for “For what purpose did the universe come into being?”, which has all the same problems as “Why are we here?”

      • Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Actually, physics doesn’t really deal in cause and effect so no need for an “intender”. The question, “Why are we here?” is more about the laws of nature that define our existence.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        I agree. In this instance, even the word ‘why’ is loaded. The scientist may be able to approach the question ‘how come?’ The question ‘why?’ may have no answer, and indeed no meaning.

    • Posted May 12, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      I think science has made “why” redundant and made it “how is it we are we here?”
      This is why imho, they thought it “silly”.

    • Posted May 13, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      Or that “Knowledge” only has to do with ‘correspondence’ to what is out there. This is kind of a self-affirming prophecy; it allows Scientismists to disqualify logic, reason, and math as ‘just’ ideas, just coincidentally involved with Reality!!! Weird, to think that Math Truth has nothing to do with what is essentially real and yet physics is all about math. Scientism, as is served up on this site, is incorrect. I respect the fight against hog-wash religion but somewhere in reality Subjects have to Be. Subjects get blown out of the water in this totally Object World, yet subjects Do science!!!!

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        As another commenter mentioned, whether math objects are real or not is controversial. They do seem less real than, say, rocks. As with so many things, it depends on what you mean by “real”.

        Physics is not really all about math. Instead, we use math to describe nature. The relationship between math and nature is still controversial. A good start on the topic is


        Actually, Max Tegmark, a physicist we see on tv a lot these days, believes that mathematics underlies reality. This is not a widely held belief and this is purely theoretical. If I understand his theory properly, it says that mathematics is the ONLY thing that is real. Hard to wrap one’s head around that.

        • Murali
          Posted May 13, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          >They do seem less real than, say, rocks

          I suppose you can’t murder someone by bashing them on the head with a differential form. That is a good thing — otherwise, we might have to ban differential forms. Where would we be then?

          Does Tegmark say what he means by ‘real’? I would like to know how he concludes that math is the ONLY thing that is real.

          Is Our Mathematical Universe the book in which he talks about this?

          • Posted May 13, 2019 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

            Yes, “Our Mathematical Universe” is the only Tegmark book I’ve read. I have it right based on Wikipedia:


            “That is, the physical universe is not merely described by mathematics, but is mathematics (specifically, a mathematical structure). Mathematical existence equals physical existence, …”

        • alexander
          Posted May 14, 2019 at 1:29 am | Permalink

          “Actually, Max Tegmark, a physicist we see on tv a lot these days, believes that mathematics underlies reality. This is not a widely held belief and this is purely theoretical. If I understand his theory properly, it says that mathematics is the ONLY thing that is real. Hard to wrap one’s head around that.”

          Yes, Alain Connes thinks so too. However the physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf shows that some physical theories can be supported/described by different mathematical approaches:

          • phoffman56
            Posted May 14, 2019 at 8:51 am | Permalink

            To be brief for a changr (to much relief, I imagine!), the vague unoriginal article of Dijkgraaf in no way contradicts Tegmark’s conjectures concerning the existence and uniqueness of mathematical structures. It is commonplace to mathematicians that the same structure can be produced by apparently very different mathematical (axiomatic) systems.

          • Posted May 14, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

            Thanks for the link. I will check it out.

            It has always bothered me that virtually all physicists’ equations model reality and really don’t tell us its true nature. Tegmark’s theory solves that problem but that doesn’t make it true. In fact, it seems like a trick, though an elegant and attractive one.

  13. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    According to Wikipedia: “Cardus has its roots in a charity established in 1974 under the name “Foundation for Research and Economics in Developing a Christian Approach to Industrial Relations and Economics”; and “Cardus produces two periodicals: Comment,[16] a “journal of public theology for the common good”; and Convivium,[17] a “journal of faith in our common life””. The latter journal is edited by Father Raymond J. De Souza, parish priest of the Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in Ontario.

    So Cardus’ philosophical (or theological) position is an old story. We should be equally or more concerned about the unofficial alliance between acolytes of “other ways of knowing” and the partisans of “decolonizing” the academic world. The latter exude hostility toward science because of its mostly European provenance, the use of clocks, sextants and steamships by European colonialists, the way bridge design relies on Physics rather than the principles of Equity and Diversity, and similar offenses.

  14. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    “The so-called a priori assumption that the empirical method is the best way to find truth is not a prior conviction, but the result of centuries of experience of what works and what doesn’t.”
    Exactly, could hardly have been put better. It is an empirical observation. And hence open (well, I’m not holding my breath) to possible change by more observation.
    And yes, we’re still waiting for an answer from ‘other ways of knowing’ that are not ‘just so’.

  15. Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    My view on attacks on “scientism” is this: These attacks are invariably launched by someone who is objectively wrong.

    They are saying something or supporting something which outright conflicts with observable reality, and they want a neat out for not having to take that reality into account.

    So they yell “scientism” at the problem.

    Because when we talk about “other ways of knowing” what we’re talking about is really just bullshit. It is anti-vax, or flat eartherism, or climate denialism or creationism.

    When science is on your side, scientism is great, when the facts aren’t, well, scientism is this great evil.

    With mathematics – if an equation doesn’t describe something real, then it is really just numbers on a page. One plus one equals two, because if you have one bean, and you get another bean, you have two beans.

    The practical application of mathematics provides scientific evidence for its validity.

    Now you can say there is stuff that science doesn’t deal with – all the oughts fall into that category.

    But something can ought to be one way all you want, it doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t. You cannot derive is from ought – and generally whenever you see someone complaining about scientism that is exactly what they’re trying to do.

    The is does not support their ought. They want to duck around that, and thus bringing up the is becomes “scientism” most foul.

    • Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      I think you are wrong on mathematics. Practical applications of math add to its value but they have nothing to do with validating mathematical truth. Mathematics describes abstract concepts. Even when math models have practical application, the world never fits those models exactly except in trivial cases (eg, one rock plus one rock equals two rocks).

      • alexander
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        I didn’ see this reply when I asked about 1 + 1. But the why in scientific questions always refers to a previous state of affairs, so it is no really “why”, but what lead to…? or “what was the previous state of affairs;”

        • Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          Not always in physics. It has been noted many times that the fundamental equations of physics allow time to move forward or backward. Causation is more a human mental mechanism than part of physics.

          • Nicolaas Stempels
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            The fundamentals of physics allow it, time moving backward or forward, but reality doesn’t, time just passes. Sad. One cannot exclude the possibility that the physics is wrong there.
            I really think that if we get a grasp of what time is, if ever, we could answer a lot more of the ‘why’ questions.
            Lamartine’s “Ô temps, suspends ton vol!”, immediately raises the pertinent question: for how long?

            • Posted May 12, 2019 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

              Or is time passing simply an artifact of human perception?

              • darrelle
                Posted May 13, 2019 at 8:25 am | Permalink

                The evidence suggests that no, it is not just human perception. Of course our current perception of it is surely wrong or at least incomplete. And of course we are not sure, time is still one of the major mysteries of physics. It may simply be that time is an effect of the universe evolving from a state of lower entropy to one of increasing entropy, but whatever it is time does very much seem to be a thing that is independent of human perception.

              • Posted May 13, 2019 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                I was really referring to the idea that we live in a plane of existence where time is perceived to move forward but that there may be other planes of existence in which time doesn’t apply or where their time is not out time. If, for example, we live in a computer simulation then time is whatever its programmer wants it to be. A popular science fiction trope is that alien life is all around us but we don’t recognize it because we assume it lives in our plane of existence — it senses three dimensions of space in which one can move in any direction and one dimension of time that only goes one way. Those things may not be true for all life. Of course, that depends highly on what we consider “life” but that’s a different kettle of fish.

              • Posted May 13, 2019 at 9:14 am | Permalink

                I think, yes. From an Absolutist Science View (real, hard core Scientism) options, probability, and Free Will is all ‘simply’ or ‘only’ human perception. But I say, human perception is as much a part of the universe, a fact, as gravity…. Drop the diminutives.

      • alexander
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        “the world never fits those models exactly except in trivial cases (eg, one rock plus one rock equals two rocks).”

        Not all physicists will agree with you. A lot of theoretical research in gravitation, space-time, black holes, etc. is based on purely mathematical models, such as those of string theorists, who try to derive physics from purely mathematical constructs, such as strings, branes, etc. Unfortunately mathematical models that allow the unification of general relativity and quantum theory did not work out yet, but theorists are trying. But some mathematicians and physicists, such as Carlo Rovelli, or Alain Connes, think that the fundamental structure of space and matter is entirely mathematical.

        • Murali
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

          ‘A lot of theoretical research in gravitation, space-time, black holes, etc. is based on purely mathematical models’

          General relativity is an approximation because it is not a quantum theory; Quantum mechanics is an approximation because it is not relativistic; Quantum field theory is approximate because it does not incorporate gravity; String theory is not entirely testable right now — even if it were, we would not know if it is exact at any time because an observation that would falsify it might be just around the temporal corner.

          Also, measurements have uncertainties associated with them as well. A photon, in practice, as far as we can tell, could be lighter than some upper bound.

        • Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

          Physicist’s mathematical models are ideal descriptions that they hope fit observational data. Only if the universe is a computer simulation might we conclude that these equations actually implement the universe. Instead, most physicists only think in terms of experimental data matching that described by the mathematical model, not the other way around.

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 3:59 am | Permalink

        But then it isn’t a way of knowing separate to science, it is a way of forming a hypothesis which you test against observation.

        • Posted May 13, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

          “But then it isn’t a way of knowing separate to science, it is a way of forming a hypothesis which you test against observation.”

          If you mean mathematics here then I disagree. 1 + 1 = 2 doesn’t depend on observation. Mathematics is, like logic, has meaning by itself.

          When a scientist says that observational data validates her mathematical model, she doesn’t mean that the equations underlie nature’s behavior. They don’t define nature but describe it. Regardless of how good a model is, it virtually never 100% accurate. Nature does its own thing.

          • Posted May 13, 2019 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            I’m more meaning in the sense that it describes something real.

            I mean language for example can be used to create a fictional world – and it can tell you how that fictional world works, but that doesn’t mean that the fictional world necessarily tells you anything about the real world.

            Fiction doesn’t end up being a way of knowing – at least not about the real world.

            • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

              Yes, mathematics is a bit like fiction in that it exists independent of the real world. However, it has its own rules that must be followed for it to have any meaning at all. Actually, a lot of mathematics is making up a new rule set, playing around with it, and seeing where it leads. If some scientist can make use of that new rule set to describe nature, that’s all just gravy. Einstein making use of recently invented non-Euclidean geometry his Theory of Relativity is a good example of this.

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        Sorry I joined this discussion so late!
        I think whenever we separate “logical” from “observational” truths we are on a slippery slope to an incoherent world view.

        • Posted May 13, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

          Not at all. Mathematics can describe all kinds of things that do not occur in nature. It is not at all bound by nature. There is a discussion to be had as to what mathematics really is but that’s a whole different argument.

          Take 1 + 1 = 2 for example. Even if we found the laws of physics vary across the universe, could we imagine 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2 somewhere? It wouldn’t make any sense.

          • Dino Rosati
            Posted May 13, 2019 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

            Quite right, Deutsch calls these mathematical truths “necessary truths“ and are independent of the laws of physics.
            You may find this video interesting:

            David Deutsch, 2017 Dirac Medal Award Lecture
            The Mathematician’s Misconception

            Both mathematical and physical truths are real and independent of each other. Our knowledge of them will always be fallible. Mathematical proof is a computation and is therefore physical. Physical theories cannot be proved.

            The Turing Conjecture:
            Finite physical systems in the form of a universal computer (including humans) can only prove a vanishingly small subset of mathematical truths but can simulate (understand) any possible finite physical system to arbitrary accuracy.

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        Bunge suggests that “truth” only applies to mathematics by tradition.

        (He and I are mathematical fictionalists.)

        • Posted May 13, 2019 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          Right. I think that was pointed out by another ocmmenter (perhaps you). Scientific truth is provisional but mathematical truth is not. Interestingly, mathematical proofs are provisional too as someone might discover a logic flaw. I think that’s a different kind of “provisional” though.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Nuff said.

  16. Dino Rosati
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Neil’s arguments against Scientism are flawed, especially his take on theology.
    Here is a good takedown of Scientism by David Deutsch:

    Short video, well worth your time to view.
    A couple quotes:
    “One of the most important limits of science is that it isn’t philosophy. […] Scientism is the purported application of science to problems that are really philosophical.”

    “I would say to [those who claim that the only good explanations are scientific explanations] that that theory is not part of science, and therfore it rules itself out.”

    • Murali
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      He said that reason has no limits. Is there a place in which he clarifies that statement? A book or paper?

      • Dino Rosati
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        Yes. See Deutsch’s book, “The Beginning of Infinity”. He makes the argument that humans, more generally entities he calls “people”, are universal explainers or problem solvers. They can in principle solve any problem that is not impossible by the laws of physics.

        • Murali
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:57 pm | Permalink


        • peepuk
          Posted May 13, 2019 at 1:24 am | Permalink

          Didn’t you mean “They can in principle solve any problem that are possible by the laws of physics”?

          Problems “not possible by physics” seems to me imaginary problems (fiction).

          I would claim that entities called “people” are more like story-tellers than pursuers of truth. They solve in general only certain kinds of problems about non physical entities, by inventing other non physical entities (f.i. Humanities, Social Sciences).

          The only exception seems to be the natural sciences.

      • Dino Rosati
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Here is a video by Brett Hall describing this kind of universality in chapter 6 of Deutsch’s book.

        • Murali
          Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          Cool! I think that is one of those subjective truths. I can’t see a video.

          • Murali
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

            I see it now 🙂

          • Murali
            Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

            I can see it now 🙂 Thanks again!

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      I’m mightily not impressed.
      His example of our inability to find out if animals are able to feel pain is particularly ill chosen. Of course we can, you do not even need science for that )another way of knowing /s). And I note that his contention would be applicable to you or me too.
      The purported mistake of ‘application of science to problems that are really philosophical’ sounds very much like the God of the Gaps to me.

    • phoffman56
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      David Deutsch is generally someone whose opinions are very sound and agreeable to me. However, this particular instance, of a question he regards as not scientific, but philosophical, and presumably his best example, seems very weak to me.

      The question is whether non-human animals feel pain. The response to him should have been the following question: Do you accept that homo erectus individuals felt pain? If yes, what about australopithecus individuals? etc…

      One can be sure his answer would never be ‘no’.

      Anytime the answer is: ‘yes’, surely the justification is just as scientific as is the answer, again ‘yes’ to, say, the different question: Did a so-called meat-eating dinosaur— but one with rare fossils where a certain kind of teeth are found, but never yet another smaller animal skeleton evidently within what was the big guy’s digestive system—eat other animals? And that is essentially right there on the same video as being part of ‘good’ science, despite no direct evidence. (It’s now a standard joke by us Everett supporters re quantum fundamentals, a serious joke due I believe to Deutsch, that paleontologists do not regard the concept of the dinosaur as merely a calculational device to help explain fossils, but rather do indeed regard them as actually being once existing animals whose existence and properties their science is explaining!)

      Anytime the answer is: ‘no opinion, I cannot come up with what is a philosophical method to answer’, just go back up to the dinosaur question above and query how the distinction is made.

      In #18 below, I try my luck giving my general opinion about these two Quillette articles and Jerry’s post. Safe to say, I am a ‘scientism-ist’. By the way, cannot resist, but sorry, the feeble answer somewhere here that the word ‘scientist’ just has to mean ‘supporter of scientism’, apparently because ‘socialist’ means ‘supporter of socialism’, etc., just doesn’t do the trick, does it?

      Anyway, I do not accept that in this video Deutsch has made any valid criticism of ‘scientism’, in either of the two senses I try to ascribe to that word. This is despite my admiration of almost all of his two famous books, and of his scientific accomplishments—e.g. being first to establish the existence of abstract UNIVERSAL quantum computers. That was not done earlier by the major pioneers, neither by Richard Feynman, nor by a man few seem to properly credit, the mathematician Yuri Manin, a couple of years before the physicist, but in Russian.

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        Ah, I have to remember that analogy. The one I typically use is that the Sun only emits photons in directions that would eventually allow the photons to hit something, but loses energy consistent with emitting photons in every direction somehow.


      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        I did not follow some of your comment, but I think you are mistaken on —
        the equivalence of “feeling pain” and “eating other animals.” They are not equally objective.
        Which is similar to the question about australopithicus and pain. I imagine we would attribute ‘pain’ to it, just like to our dog, but it is somewhat as a courtesy because neither could report on their own state/feeling. Its our reporting on “pain” along with many of our other states and opinions that comes to play a crucial role in human societies. It distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to Do Science and not ‘just’ be science objects — like molecules and subatomic particles. ‘Just’ is used in a diminutive sense; persons are more than that.
        Sorry for joining discussion so late.

        • phoffman56
          Posted May 13, 2019 at 11:35 am | Permalink

          I had said “presumably his best answer”, but Deutsch might possibly have something more subtle, possibly along the line you might be driving at, which is not at all clear to me.

          As it stands, I disagree with you: imagine some crude scientist much in the past or some horrid Nazi doctor, doing an experiment on various mammals (maybe even an Australopithecus! no, I guess not). He or she pushes its body part into a blazing fire and observes the reaction. That would be very similar to how you or I would react.

          Perhaps you have some more precise notion of ‘feel pain’ which that awful experiment would not reveal. If so, I’d be interested, though any which involved some possible observation of activity within the brain would also be surely just as scientific.

          So let me know if I am completely missing your point. I doubt that an argument that somehow none of us can really know that any other person ‘feels pain’, much less knowing that our pet does, is unlikely to convince me.

          • phoffman56
            Posted May 13, 2019 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

            Change “unlikely” to ‘likely’ at the end.

          • Posted May 14, 2019 at 9:53 am | Permalink

            Thanks for the thoughtful response. I mean that I/we do have “a more precise notion of pain”. It is the notion that is ‘in our language’. It is a large series of contrasts between “pain” and “pleasure”, “death”, “health”, “disease”, “relief”… I think that when we “feel” pain, it is not a pure/simple/only “feeling”; it is also all these other concepts playing in to what we experience. I don’t believe in pure feelings or pure ideas. That only gets us a Dualistic world and that is not a reasonable position.
            So, we can say a lot of diff things feel pain, even a baby, but when we, as socialized adults, feel pain “it’s not exactly the same thing”. Our culture makes a difference. Words and Ideas do matter, and I know that is not the accepted position on this site.

  17. Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    My other ways of knowing bring me to a suspicion that a bunch of crusaders keep writing against “scientism” to avenge their Fs in Science back in high school.

  18. phoffman56
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    ‘Scientism’ has been given many meanings, “malleable” as the Winegards write. But all seem to lie somewhere between the following two:
    1/ It means believing that no statement can be regarded as true unless it has been carefully checked by scientific methods.
    2/ It means asserting that policies to be applied to people should always be based ‘solely’ on established scientific truths.

    Presumably the 1st somehow implies the 2nd, though ‘solely’ is written since clearly there is the obvious business of it being undesirable to apply false theories to humans, and on the not-at-all obvious moral decisions about what outcomes are desirable for humans. But 1/ seems more comprehensive than 2/.

    Now the Winegards are definitely restricting to 2/, with their frequent reference to SBSP, namely “science based social policy”. One could accept 2/ and not 1/, since I didn’t claim the converse. I’m trying to be as clear as possible. Please excuse what so far may seem trivial and even tautological.

    I definitely agree with Jerry that Winegards’ article is valuable, if not particularly original, and with a clear understanding of the above.

    I also agree with him that the other article generating his post is not only utterly unoriginal, but badly full of old errors. And although supposedly it is a criticism of the Winegards, it very clearly confuses the somewhat different 1/ and 2/. In particular, this tiresome ’other ways of knowing’ stuff, though unconvincing anyway, clearly but pathetically tries to refute the stronger assertion 1/, not 2/.

    Personally I am a proponent of 1/, period, but with a generous interpretation of ‘scientific methods’, which includes mathematical/logical ones. And, as others have said, you almost always get that blathery general nonsense above without a single example of what is purported to be a truth which can only be arrived at by some supposed other way of knowing. People such as that author, coming from a so-called think tank, but one propped up by religious (Roman Catholic here) dogmatists, do not dare to give their standard examples, of the resurrection, god’s existence(s), etc. when writing for something like Quillette (though I wish the latter would upgrade its editorial decisions by maybe not publishing what seem to be little more than mediocre undergrad philosophy term papers like this one). Most of what I am saying here has been said many times above.

    However, above this reply, in #16, we get a video interview of David Deutsch, a physicist whose writings and opinions I generally have a high regard for. He there however does give a very particular claimed counterexample to 1/ (very much in contradistinction to the paragraph just above), regarding his example as a philosophical “other way of knowing”. Of course I disagree with him strongly there, and will soon explain that, replying to #16.

  19. W.Benson
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    The attack on “scientism” didn’t begin yesterday. Here is a quote from 140 years ago that gives a fair idea of where it sprung from:
    “Materialists most directly and plainly support, as they require, the hypothesis of speculative scientism, and adopt, in whole, or in part, the monstrous assertions of Darwin, Huxley and Tyndal, and trace in man’s ontological constitution a development from, or a similarity to, that of the brute creation. Materialism, pure and simple, has the merit and the glory, of claiming for man an affinity with the baboon.”
    Page 221 of Rev. Edward Softley, B.D. (1879) book “Modern Universalism and Materialism, as Viewed in the Light of Holy Scripture.” Toronto, Canada: Rowsell and Hitchinson. xii + 292 p.

    • Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Creationism rears its ugly head yet again.


  20. Steve Gerrard
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    This discussion has made me ponder two things:

    1. Anti-scientism is starting to sound like “philosophy of the gaps,” similar to “god of the gaps” without the explicit theological element.

    2. The descriptions given of how empirical scientific knowledge accumulates and builds on itself starts to sound like evolution: selection over time of the ideas that work the best for describing, predicting, and explaining the world around us.

    • Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      1. Anti-scientism is starting to sound like “philosophy of the gaps,” similar to “god of the gaps” without the explicit theological element.

      And sometimes with.


  21. Posted May 13, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    “tell us a single bit of knowledge that wasn’t derived by science”
    ——-Here are several: Our knowledge of color and sound. Both are Empirical, both are organized into systems of kinds (color wheels, hues, intensity, scales, chords, Blues, jazz, Rock), both are useful in many ways. Please don’t tell me they are only about “feelings” and are “subjective” and then contend that that opinion is not based on a Metaphysical view. If people could only agree more, then maybe morality could also have some truths, but too many people are shackled by bad metaphysical views —- like Scientism and Religion to get it together.
    Sorry I joined the debate so late.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 13, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Pythagoras identified the qualitative properties of tones ringing in ratios – “music of the spheres” – he didn’t call it “science” but how is it not scientific?

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 13, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      “Our knowledge of color and sound. Both are Empirical, both are organized into systems of kinds (color wheels, hues, intensity, scales, chords, Blues, jazz, Rock)”

      Empiricism is an important part of science.

      I don’t understand the connection between music or paintings etc. with knowledge – we don’t _know_ what the artist was trying to say because how would we – and everyone interprets it differently. But personally listening to – experiencing – music, or paintings- is not science. It could be, one day perhaps when scientists get bored, they could analyze concert goers in MRI’s.

      How about the pain scale in the doctors ‘ office – that’s scientific and we know important information but – it’s based on the patient reporting – expressing – how they feel – which one day might be measurable with an MRI or something else.

      • Posted May 14, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        I am trying to say that we ‘know’ color and sound before we try to ‘know’ them scientifically. We ‘know’ them by “having them” and organizing them in our language, and this is pre-scientific. Now, I also brought in how we have organized those experiences into a systematic understanding of them in art and music, also before we did or do science on them. That seems to qualify, by Jerry’s terms, as knowledge — it is empirical, systematic and useful. It is knowledge for those reasons, and it allows us to make music, visual art, signals (flags, sirens, traffic controls…). Also, color’s use in clothing and architecture. All real things.
        Knowledge not derived from science, Jerry asked for examples. If that doesn’t count as knowledge then it seems to be because of a specific Metaphysical Theory contending “knowledge” is something different. It seems to me.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted May 14, 2019 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          I’m not understanding this.

          It sounds like you’re pointing at humanity’s primitive encounters with anything and calling it “knowledge” – so the earliest Homo sapiens looked around, saw the moon, and knew it was something, somehow. No science involved (how could it be). Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, and knows it circa 1969 as Homo sapiens who graduated from MIT.

          Clearly there are differences between both individuals’ knowledge, But Aldrin still, presumably, looks around at the moon and knows it is something, somehow just the way the earliest H. sapiens could. Is that something and somehow the part you are pointing at as independent of science? Something akin to anyone’s primitive experiences?

          Side note : color blindness – only knowable with science. Otherwise, the primitive experience of color blindness would have just been confusing to everyone… I think it still is, depending on the color, traffic light bulbs, and country.

          • Posted May 14, 2019 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

            Dear Thyroid, Leonardo da Vinci painted with color long before we had any knowledge of color as electro-mag waves, or rods and cones or … Surely he had knowledge of color, he sure used it well. Remember, Jerry says we know Sci is true without metaphysics because it is Useful.

            As far as Moon goes, yes, primitives did know it in so far as they started to track it, have a sense of its phases. They’re start was then developed into our further understanding. But I get what you are saying, and that just shows the shortcomings of empiricism, pure looking up and seeing “something”. Our perceptions are interwoven with our theories, our broader world views. But are you really going to argue that people didn’t know anything until Science?? What about Farming? The only way to save the “only Science is knowledge” gambit is to really water down your definition of Sci.

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:08 am | Permalink

              I’ll have to go bit by bit :

              “Leonardo da Vinci painted with color long before we had any knowledge of color as electro-mag waves, or rods and cones or … Surely he had knowledge of color, he sure used it well.”

              So what? Concepts layer upon concepts ad infinitum as they develop. Yet, they would be of only special relevance if any, had Leonardo painted Mona Lisa today – i.e. he didn’t need them. And what knowledge – what predictions – does the Mona Lisa give us?

              Is your claim that this science-independent knowledge is in the same boat of knowledge as science-dependent knowledge?

              • Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

                No, they are not “in the same boat.” In fact, Dennett argues that sci-ind knowledge is the basis for sci kn. “Analysis (sci) is parasitic on Action” is the way I put it in my own blog. Our design gives us, and australopithicenes “knowledge” as ‘having’—- having the experience of color, experience of the ‘moon’… This ‘having’ is then reported internationally and Then made more objective. There is no Knowledge but sci kn is a Very Artificial position! I know my wife and my pet dog, but it is not sci knowledge, though i can make some predictions about their behavior. Really, all the things you know is Science??? what of your kn of words and language?
                thanks for the exchange. But the more I think of it it is very artificial.

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

              Further thought :

              Da Vinci knew how to paint – as did early H. sapiens, by evidence of cave paintings… I think other hominins too – no science required. So knowing how to paint is an example of science-independent knowledge?

              I’d agree if so, but I add that painting is not necessarily science-independent- perhaps a creative artist can show this. And, the methods of science might have been used without their knowing it at the time – testing color mixes, shading, testing and repeating perspective, etc.

              So I’m still bewildered at the apparent distinction between these types of knowledge.

  22. Christian Fieldhouse
    Posted May 13, 2019 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I prefer to think of the solution to the proem of induction as:

    “I make the pragmatic assumption that the universe *is* intelligible. If it is not, then there is by definition nothing we can do about it, so let’s assume it is and do science”

    Similarly, if someone questions whether objective reality exists, I answer that you may as well assume it, otherwise you just can’t operate.

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      There’s another step, too: we see that our hypothesis is confirmed (which is fallible) every time we do find a piece of the big pattern of everything – a small pattern.

      (Cue the Weird Al song. :))

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