Staking positions amongst the varieties of scientism

victor-frankensteinby Massimo Pigliucci

I have never understood why there is so much confusion about the definition of scientism. I just looked it up in my basic Apple dictionary, and it is crystal clear: “Excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” The devil, and much of the discussion, of course, is in the details. When, exactly, is it that one’s belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques becomes “excessive”? What else is entailed by a scientistic approach or worldview? (Warning: if you think these questions are meaningless because of course there are no limits to the power of science, then you are most definitely engaging in scientistic thinking.)

As our readers may remember, John Shook recently gave us a useful “alphabet soup” of scientism, which I will use as a reference point in what follows in order to clarify my own thinking about scientism — an especially timely exercise because I will soon be hosting a workshop on the topic at CUNY’s Graduate Center, from which an edited volume may or may not eventually emerge. In what follows, then, I will simply list again the elements of John’s soup (in alphabetical order, of course), and briefly comment on every entry. The hope is that when we arrive at the end, a clearer and perhaps even somewhat coherent, view of scientism will emerge — or at the very least that there will be food for further thought and discussion of the issue.

A. There is a thing called “science” with its own characteristic features distinctive enough to distinguish it from other human practices.

Yes, there is. While it is true that scientific thinking, broadly construed, is continuous with human thinking in general (how could it be otherwise?), it should be uncontroversial (although it actually isn’t) that the kind of attention to empirical evidence, theory construction, and the relation between the two that characterizes science is “distinctive enough,” as John puts it, to allow us to meaningfully speak of an activity that we call science as sufficiently distinct from, say, plumbing, literary criticism, or mathematics.

B. Plenty of knowledge about a subject can be gained by practical trial-and-error, but scientific knowledge of that subject is more reliable and valuable.

Again, yes. Unless one wishes to claim — rather anachronistically — that Homo sapiens has been doing “science” since the dawn of its evolutionary history, we can clearly identify science as the sort of practice that came into full form around the 16th century with the likes of Bacon and Galilei, although elements of it can be traced much further back, arguably to Aristotle and even the pre-Socratics.

C. If there are people believing that something is true, but a science confirms that it can’t be so, then those people don’t really know.

Well, not exactly, though close. I would rather say that if you believe something that goes against the current scientific consensus (e.g., that the earth is a few thousand years old, or that climate change is not taking place, and so on), then you are very likely to lose the epistemic bet. But the scientific consensus has been proven wrong in the past, so the above statement is true only to a first approximation, and one should always keep in mind the history of science as an object lesson.

D. There is a specifiable “scientific method” that possesses some definable core or essential steps, used by all genuine sciences.

No. Philosophers of science have looked for just such an algorithm (e.g., the famous “hypothetico-deductive” method [1], or Popper’s falsifiability [2]) and have come up short. The post-Kuhn [3] consensus is that there is no such method, and that science helps itself to a loosely defined toolbox of methods, heuristics and intuitions.

E. There is no subject matter or kind of reality, or any field of experience and endeavor, that isn’t amenable to inquiry by scientific method.

False, and clearly so. Mathematics is a huge area of knowledge where science has absolutely nothing to say, zip (though, as is well known, mathematics has a lot to say about science!). Logic is another such field. There are fields where science may have something to say, but what it does say is pretty much irrelevant. No bit of scientific analysis is going to improve my experience of a Shakespearian play, for instance, or of my favorite bits of jazz music. And so on.

F. Even if there is no singular “scientific method,” the methodologies used by scientists are universally applicable to anything that can be observed or can have empirical consequences.

Ah, this one is tricky. I suppose this is true, in principle. But there are a lot of unique events, qualitative experiences, etc. that are in practice hardly amenable to rigorous scientific treatment. For instance, what I am doing, and even (potentially) what I am thinking, right now can certainly be observed empirically, and it does have empirical consequences. But what would it even mean to “do science” about it? What sort of hypothesis of general interest would one be testing, and why? Or think about claims about historical events. Suppose we had written testimony from a lieutenant of Napoleon that the reason the Emperor lost at Waterloo is that he had diarrhea that morning. This, presumably, is a matter of fact, with empirical consequences. Can it be tested scientifically? I doubt it. We just have to either accept or reject the testimony itself (about the diarrhea), and accept or reject the lieutenant’s specific inference of a causal connection between the diarrhea and the outcome of the battle. And such acceptance or rejection would be based on historical analysis of the proper documents as well as on commonsense judgment (is it really believable that Napoleon lost for that reason, even if he really did experience an episode of diarrhea?).

G. Any explanation that hasn’t been tested (or can’t be tested) by scientific method(s) is no explanation at all and mustn’t be believed with any confidence.

You’ve got to be kidding. For instance, there are mathematical explanations for why certain things are impossible (like crossing all the bridges of the town of Königsberg exactly once [4]) which trump, or make superfluous, or are more basic than, any scientific (i.e., empirical) explanation. Or, more mundanely, take my explanation of why I like dirty martinis (it has to do with the fact that I prefer sharp flavors to neutral ones, but I also like strong drinks). It’s not that you couldn’t “do science” about it, I suppose. It’s rather that the science would be superfluous: I am telling you why I like dirty martinis, the explanation is accurate and to the point, and it most definitely can be believed with confidence.

H. Whatever people may think they know, they don’t really know unless some science or another among the social, life, or physical sciences can come along and approve that knowledge.

Nonsense on stilts. I know how to demonstrate the Pythagorean theorem, and science has nothing to do with it. And I know that I prefer dirty martinis to martinis with a twist, science’s approval be damned.

I. However the sciences may develop and undergo paradigm shifts, science itself is reflexively competent to fully understand how it works best without assistance from any other humanistic or philosophical field.

Clearly not. Let me give you a very simple example, which I believe is representative. Julia Galef and I recently had the pleasure of having noted cosmologist Lawrence Krauss on our Rationally Speaking podcast [5]. During our conversation Krauss said — in all seriousness — that scientific theories cannot be proven, they can only be falsified. I commented that that was very Popperian of him, to which he responded with a self-satisfactory grin of assent. But the joke’s on him: Popperian falsificationism is a historically important position in philosophy of science, but one that has been clearly and decidedly superseded by several additional decades of scholarship in the field (not only scientific theories cannot be proven, they cannot even be falsified!). Equally clearly, Krauss — like most scientists — is neither capable (because of lack of training) nor interested in doing much reflection on the nature of science. He should be happy to leave that task to philosophers.

J. Whatever the sciences may acknowledge to be happening and have existence cannot be amended or overruled by any other field of experience or intellectual discipline.

In a broad sense this strikes me as accurate, although its converse clearly isn’t (there are plenty of things going on in the universe — or in people’s personal experiences — of which science remains ignorant).

K. Nothing can be happening unless empirical consequences and entities/forces/laws trackable by one science or another are somehow involved.

Not exactly. I would agree that nothing can be happening unless there are (very broadly construed) empirical consequences, and that these consequences obey or are dependent on entities/forces/laws. It does not follow that one science or another can or will ever be able to track them, though. For instance, I’m pretty sure that life originated according to entities/forces/laws of this kind; but the origin of life is also one of my favorite bets for examples of something we’ll likely never be able to track scientifically, for the simple reason that there aren’t enough historical traces left for us to investigate. (Notice that even if we were able to artificially generate life under laboratory conditions, we would not thereby have shown that that is how life on earth also originated billions of years ago.)

L. A thing isn’t independently real unless it can be theoretically confirmed, presently or in the future, by one science or another.

No. What I’m thinking at this particular moment is real (independently of what?) regardless of whether science could confirm it, now or in the future.

M. A thing can’t have any reality unless it can be theoretically confirmed by one of the biological or natural sciences.

Are numbers and other mathematical objects real? The question at the very least makes sense and is debatable, and it is irresolvable by science [6]. And of course, again, there are presumably gazillions of things that are real and yet are currently unknown to science and may be forever beyond science’s ability to investigate — parallel universes may (and I stress may) be a cosmic-size example of that. For a more mundane one, see the above mentioned hypothetical instance of imperial diarrhea.

N. A thing has no reality at all unless its existence is required by a theory of a single natural science enjoying the widest universality (physics).

Wow! The hubris! I’d like a physicist to try and work out why it is necessary, according to, say, quantum mechanics (currently the best theory in physics) that I be writing these very words. Yes, yes, pursuing this line of reasoning would quickly get us into the quagmire of free will debates, but, seriously, the assumption of reductive determinism is just that, a (philosophical!) assumption, not an empirical fact demonstrated by science [7]. Oh, and mathematical Platonism.

O. A subject matter that seems to have little or nothing to do with a natural science hasn’t been well-understood until natural scientists have reviewed and commented on it.

I hope you can begin to see a recurring pattern here. Mathematics and logic are obvious (too easy, really!) exceptions. But also, for instance, literary criticism, music, and the arts in general. While surely science can make some contributions in understanding some issues pertinent to these other fields, it is outrageously false to say that we have no understanding of them until science steps in.

P. A thing cannot have value unless its existence has been scientifically confirmed and some science(s) can agree that it has some value, for an individual or an aggregate of individuals.

This one ought to be laughed out of court. “Value” is in the eye of the (human) beholder, so something can have value for me regardless of how many others share my opinion about it, and scientific confirmation is simply irrelevant. The broader discussion here concerns the famous is/ought divide in ethics [8], where I maintain science has little to say. But I could equally bring up aesthetics judgment and the value people put on specific works of art, or on art in general. Can science describe and quantify the distribution of values on these issues in the population? Sure. Can it tell us whether we should hold those values? I do not even know what that question means, from a scientific perspective.

Q. There is no form of human relationship or type of social organization that cannot be understood and improved by the application of scientific inquiry and reformed by scientific knowledge.

Yeah, please see eugenics and other “scientific” forms of social engineering for a quick retort. Look, I have a profound respect for factual information, and I use it whenever pertinent to my goals. But I’m supposed to “improve” the way I form, say, friendships based on scientific principles? What would that even look like? Of course science can help me understand the human phenomenon of friendship, but whether and in which way I wish to improve it is a matter for my (emotionally driven) judgment, not for a panel of scientists sitting on the Friendship Augmentation Committee to decide. And people wonder why scientism has a bad reputation in certain quarters.

R. There is no worldview that cannot be improved by the infusion of scientific knowledge and the replacement of non-scientific ideas.

Hmm, yes and no. I have no doubt that any coherent and sensible worldview has to include science or be judged woefully inadequate. But I’m not at all sure that all “non-scientific” ideas need to be replaced with scientific ones. There are plenty of interesting ideas that humanity has produced — about philosophy, literature, the arts, politics, etc. — for which science simply is in no position to provide substitutes. Indeed, in many cases I’m not even sure what it would mean to replace our ideas about, say, the place of Mozart in the history of music, or the value of democracy, or the abhorrence of slavery, with “scientific” alternatives.

S. No worldview has serious legitimacy unless it agrees with the natural sciences that humanity has no special place, purpose, or destiny.

I’m inclined to somewhat agree with this one, but with a number of caveats. First off, if science really requires deterministic reductionism, then in a very serious sense humanity does have a “destiny,” and that notion would be a fundamental part of the scientific worldview. Second, humanity at large may not have a purpose, but individual human beings certainly do, yes (because they come up with their own purposes)? Third, we don’t actually know how “special” (or not) our place in the universe really is. I — it should be obvious — don’t mean to endorse any kind of intelligent design notion here. But if it turned out that humans were among very few, or even perhaps the only, self-conscious beings in the universe, well, that would certainly make us special, wouldn’t it?

T. No virtue, moral norm, or ethical principle has serious legitimacy unless it has been confirmed by, or derived from, scientific knowledge about humanity and reality.

Oh boy. Clearly, obviously, and even perniciously wrong. Even if science can help us improve our ethical principles — for instance by showing us the empirical consequences of certain choices — it is historically false to claim that we haven’t been able to come up with “legitimate” (a human value judgment!) moral norms or ethical principles. We really don’t need science to tell us that it is wrong to torture babies (or anyone, really) on the basis that torture causes pain. We know it does. And what would it mean to scientifically “test” an ethical framework like virtue ethics, or utilitarianism? Any such testing would have to already presume a specific set of values that would fall into one or another philosophical framework, thus making the whole exercise pointless or viciously circular.

U. Cultural folkways or social institutions that rely on ideas/values about matters which no science can accept as knowable, ethical, and real should be eliminated or at least marginalized.

Again, there is something to this, but the full statement is unacceptable. To begin with, science is in the business of telling us what is (physically, as opposed to say mathematically) real and, to a lesser extent, what is knowable (logic, math and epistemology — a branch of philosophy — help there too). It is not in the business of telling us what is ethical (though it certainly helps in advising us on the likely consequences of our ethical choices). But “cultural folkways” that do not rely on science should not be marginalized or, even less, “eliminated.” If people wish to conduct their lives believing that the universe was created a few thousand years ago by an all-powerful god they have a right to do so. We can tell them that they are factually wrong, and it is certainly incumbent on us to counter such notions with sound education. But no, “elimination” sounds a bit too Nazi-like for me, thank you.

V. A highly worthy life is one guided by a scientific outlook on the world.

Baloney. Plenty of people have lived highly worthy lives (ethically, I presume) that were not guided by the scientific outlook on the world. Pretty much anyone before the Scientific Revolution, for instance. And a number of other prominent and ordinary human beings since. Moreover, a lot of pretty bad stuff has been done by people who wholly embraced the scientific worldview, even without bringing in the Nazis again. And that, of course is because the connection between science and values is tenuous at best, and certainly not determinant.

W. The worthiest culture for humanity is the one technologically controlled by the scientific worldview.

This is simply a version of (V) above on steroids and applied to societies rather than individuals, and it is hence unacceptable a fortiori.

X. The most thoroughly scientific culture should displace and marginalize all other cultures across humanity.

See comment regarding (W) and bring it up a few more notches.

Y. The supremely scientific culture should eliminate all rival cultures and control the destiny of humanity.

A few more notches…

Z. The supremely scientific culture should control the course of humanity as well as all posthuman sentient forms of life, including AI life forms, that may arise from humanity.

Turn it up to the point of shouting a very clearly resounding “go to hell” response. [9]

Well, that pretty much ought to make a bit clearer what I think of scientism and its (alleged) implications, right?


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] For an excellent introduction to philosophy of science see A.F. Chalmer’s What Is This Thing Called Science?

[2] On Popper, see the SEP entry by Stephen Thornton.

[3] On Kuhn, see the SEP entry by Alexander Bird.

[4] See the fascinating paper by Marc Lange on the difference between scientific and mathematical explanations.

[5] Rationally Speaking with Lawrence Krauss.

[6] On mathematical Platonism, see the SEP entry by Øystein Linnebo.

[7] On emergent properties and the problem they may pose to reductive determinism, see the SEP entry by Timothy O’Connor and Hong Yu Wong.

[8] Check out this SEP article by Mark Schroeder on value theory.

[9] Incidentally, I by no means think that John Shook endorses any or all of the positions he listed. They are simply a good taxonomy of stuff people say in the name of scientism (either pro or against).

Categories: Philosophy, Public Policy, Science

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95 replies

  1. Russell Blackford posted an interesting comment on this very thing some time ago.

    Definitions are important.

  2. Coel,

    Not sure we actually disagree on that much. But I do think that it is possible to reason about ethics in a logical way, regardless of whether you’d call the result knowledge or not. And I do count mathematics and logic as providing us knowledge, which is not inherently scientific. Finally, I urge you to take a look at the literature on science as a social enterprise (e.g., Helen Longino’s books and SEP entry): it is simply untenable to think of science as value free.

  3. Thomas, indeed, it seems increasingly strange to me that people deny, for instance, free will or emergent properties based on their understanding of what physics tells us about causality, while causality itself has been under strong philosophical attack since Hume, and while fundamental physics – the alleged basis for the above mentioned denials – itself makes no use of the concept of causality.

  4. Robin, we either read two different SEP articles or you read the one I suggested in a radically different sense. To me it’s pretty darn clear what naturalism is, but I’m running out of ways to explain it.

  5. Hi imzasirf,

    Do you or do you not believe that all physical events can in principle be described, modeled and predicted with mathematics? If you do, you are a naturalist according to my definition. If you do not, then you are not. I don’t think I’m making any broad metaphysical claims here.

  6. I’m not talking about falsifiability. I’m just saying there’s no good reason to believe that these hypotheses are true, given naturalism. If you actually hold these beliefs, then, and you don’t know something I don’t know, then you’re either not thinking correctly or you’re not a supernaturalist.

    Take evolution for example. By Occam’s razor, there is no reason to believe that God guided evolution, because the godless evolutionary theory we already have is sufficient to account for it. God’s interference may not contradict naturalism in itself (if God is a natural object anyway, which in my language means that He works according to mathematical laws of physics), but maintaining a belief that this has actually happened is in practice only rationally defensible on supernaturalism.

    Entertaining the possibility is another kettle of fish.

  7. Coel wrote:

    You are assuming that that is possible, that one can “perceive” and “understand” suffering and pleasure yet never have experienced it.

    No, that is the whole point, they can perceive and understand the mathematics but of course they cannot perceive pleasure or suffering.

    ’s similar to Searle’s Chinese Room scenario …

    Let me stop you right there – what I am saying is not even remotely or tangentially similar to Searle’s Chinese Room argument so any reference to it is irrelevant.

    How do you know that?

    Now let me get clear what you are asking. You are asking how I know that a being who cannot experience suffering or pleasure could not know what it feels like to be nauseous by examining a complete mathematical description of the physical events in my brain and body at the time. Is that right?

    Here is the scenario:

    1. They cannot experience suffering or pleasure.
    2. They can completely understand the mathematical description of all the events in my brain and body at the time.

    I have italicised the part which you appear to have missed. There is no need for them to be able to experience pleasure or pain in order to understand that mathematical description, all they need to do is to be able to do maths.

    So they obviously can have a complete understanding of the mathematical description of our universe and they still would not have a complete understanding of our universe because there are certain things that I know about it that they can never know.

  8. Hi Disagreeable Me,

    I also deny that any talk of qualia is meaningful because I don’t really know what the word means, which is why I don’t use it.

    But I do have an ostensive definition of mental states like pain, nausea, pleasure etc, based on private referents. If Dennett is denying the reality of such conscious states (as he sometimes appears to do) then he should apply Robin’s Standard Method to this which is to spread his hand on a hard table and hit it as hard as he can with a hammer until he divests himself of that silly notion.

    So we have it that the definition of Naturalism only refers to events and that conscious states are not events but that there really are conscious states in our universe.

    That would seem that there are some things in our Universe about which Naturalism has nothing to say.

  9. Oh, and thanks for the concern, it was only a mild case of nausea and I am much better now.

  10. Coel wrote:

    “It is also the case that science doesn’t provide us with values, our human feelings are our values.”

    I am not sure I agree with that. I have feelings that contradict my values – I feel xenophobia, homophobia, greed, envy, unjustified rage among other things.

    My values are how I pick and choose among those and the feelings associated with my better nature like respect, empathy and so on.

  11. labnut wrote:

    “Right now, all of science proceeds on the unspoken assumption that the laws of nature form a single, rational, coherent whole that operate everywhere, without exception, in the same way all the time.”

    Some scientists may proceed on this basis but it is far from clear that “science” does. In the 1920’s 1930’s the philosophy of science that informed much of the science of the day explicitly denied that we could make that assumption.

    The unity of science project back then was based around the idea of unifying it at the empirical level rather than the theoretical level. In other words they held that science was unified by observations of physical objects (ie ones which could be measured and quantified in some way).

    Thus sociological and psychological research which did not seem to deal with specific physical objects could be fitted into this framework by the instruments they use to collect data, for example personal reports, surveys, assessment batteries etc.

    Any suggestion of an assumption that there was a unifying theory was regarded as pure metaphysics and to be rejected.

    Otto Neurath was the main driver of this project but many other figures, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians such as Godel, Bohr, Schlick, Carnap were on board with this.

    This project went by the name “Physicalism” which is a radically different meaning to the way it is generally used today.

    The project unravelled due to the war and the early death of Neurath and Schlick and the scepticism of some major figures such as Einstein and Planck.

    However you can still hear echoes of this from, for example, Stephen Hawking who explicitly states that his candidate for a grand unifying theory may never be, in fact, unified and may not even represent a unity.

    In fact I would say that even though the positivist philosophy of the Vienna Circle is officially regarded as defunct it is still implicit in most of science, at least as a matter of pragramatism.

  12. Hi Labnut,

    However I don’t think that Scientism follows from belief in a hands off God. In the case of a hands-off God it would still not imply that science could, for example, determine values. In purely practical terms we would be in much the same state as a reality in which the fundamental forces were blind and mechanistic.

    If you believe in a Thomist God, ie a necessarily existing intelligent, empathetic being who is the ultimate creator of all contingent things then the nature of that God could be a source of transcendent values, but it would still be the case that we would have no way of knowing what those values are.

    There would be a very slim but important difference there. The Naturalist must assume that there is fact of the matter, ultimately, as to whether a course of action is right or wrong. A believer in a hands-off Theistic God would believe there is a fact of the matter but not be in any better a position than the Naturalist in determining what that fact is.

    And, let’s face it, a hands-off God could still create a Universe in which the laws do not form a unified whole.

    My hunch is that if there is a God then he did not create a Universe at all since nobody but him would get to see it.

    Instead he would create a model that resolves the mathematics of our observations as required.

  13. I think I can show, at least, where and why scientism goes wrong. Here is Sam Harris’s “Worst Possible Misery for Everyone” argument in “The Moral Landscape”

    He says that values exist with respect to actual or potential changes in well being of conscious beings.

    Fair enough.

    He defines the negative end of this spectrum as the worst possible misery for everyone.

    Again fair enough. But you can see he is setting this up as data that could, in principle, be the subject of a physical science.

    He says that a change that leaves everybody worse of is bad. That is correct as far as it goes, but not all changes that are bad leave everybody well off.

    Most bad actions leave at least some parties better off, indeed this is the entire point of most bad actions.

    He says that any action which avoids the worst possible misery for everyone is good.

    This is simply wrong. Actions which improve the well being of particular groups or individuals at the expense of other groups or individuals avoid the worst possible misery for everyone but are nonetheless bad.

    You can see that Harris is avoiding this possibility in his “Adam and Eve” thought experiment. He considers scenarios which make them both worse off and scenarios which make them both better off and concludes that this demonstrates that there are moral facts.

    But he entirely fails to consider scenarios where one improves his/her well being at the expense of the other.

    Why not, I wonder, consider this rather obvious eventuality? Because it messes up the “science can determine values” claim.

    He says that we can ground our values in a “continuum” with worst possible misery for everyone at one end and incremental steps to various peaks with respect to that.

    But a continuum implies comparability between scenarios and how can you compare scenarios like “Eve greatly increases her own well being at the expense of Adam” with “Adam and Eve cooperate in order to moderately increase both of their well being” without starting with values?

    You can’t. Harris would have us ground our values in a continuum which is grounded in our values.

    If Harris had been less keen to promote scientific triumphalism and more interested in simply using reasoning for the problem then he would have easily seen that the plan outlined above does not work because it treats only of cases where well being changes in the same direction for all players.

    If that were the case then morality would be easy and you would still not need science, only common sense.

    As it is he ends up with something which is neither science nor philosophy nor good reasoning.

    So that is what I have against scientism – it begins with an assumption and then tries to shoehorn the data into that assumption.

  14. Hi, Labnut,

    your description reminds me of a fish in an aquarium. The aquarium’s laws are all “consistent and coherent”, or it would self-destruct sooner or later. An “intelligent” fish may even discover such laws, but that’s about it.

    The fish inside the aquarium is in no way able to determine whether its world has been built by a Hand invisible to it, or for what purpose. It is the self-contained character of the aquarium’s laws that deny this very possibility.

    Unless the fish receives breadcrumbs from on high it has no way of knowing whether there is a Hand at all (let alone a caring one). So the fish will lead its aquarium life at best it can (this would be my stance), ignoring the question of the Hand’s existence beyond the Pale of Glass.

    The metaphor of “breadcrumbs” from on high points to the conundrum of any deist position: the “problem of the particular” – a problem Pagans (and later the ancestor-loving Chinese) had raised, and was never properly answered: if He intervenes by tweaking reality in some way – revelation, miracle, whatever – He favors some, and disadvantages others (the “theoretical” market share of Christianity is less than about a third of all people ever born. Why should He have favored Middle Easterners over e.g. inhabitants of the Americas before Columbus?). The more Christians plead God’s “loving nature,” the more this problem becomes jarring,

    Of course, He could change the aquarium’s laws by making Himself visible to all. But this leads to the next conundrum – one discussed by the Italian philosopher Agamben: the strange entanglement between God and creature. It cannot be God’s purpose to reveal Himself to his creatures, for He would no longer be sublimely self-fulfilling (if the Son’s task is redemption, then His essence depends on the creature’s original sin).

    I’m afraid I get a headache at this point, I’d rather explore the next nook and cranny of the aquarium, or fulfill my fate as sea slug cleaning its glass wall as I crawl over it.

  15. Coel,
    How do you know that? This “complete understanding … but no understanding” sort of scenario
    Knowing , understanding and experience are three distinctly different mental processes and we have to be careful to keep the concepts separate when we ask questions involving them otherwise we commit a category error.
    You can experience something and not understand it.
    You can understand something and not experience it.

    Experience is not knowledge and experience is not understanding. We are committing a category error when we ask how we can ‘know‘ what someone else is ‘experiencing‘.

    We ask that question because we, ourselves, have a memory of an experience and we confuse that memory with knowledge. A memory of an experience(qualia) is not knowledge. It is an attenuated experiential imprint on my brain which is entirely different from knowledge. I cannot transfer this experiential imprint on my brain to someone else because it is a property of my brain, imprinted on my brain by the experience. But I can transfer my knowledge to someone else, provided of course that we share the same language, categories, concepts, understanding, etc. But we cannot share the same brain imprint.

    Except, in a science fiction sort of way, we could imagine a future where brain probes can sample my memories of experiences and then transfer those samples into someone else’s brain. But this would be an instrumental process and not a cognitive process.

  16. This just means that you have a range of feelings/values that are in tension with each other. All of us are capable of both anger and compassion, both greed and generosity, both affection and dislike. This just means that humans are fairly complex.

  17. Hi Robin,

    Dennett doesn’t deny the reality of conscious states. Conscious states can be detected empirically, e.g. with a brain scanner or even by simple observation of behaviour. He denies that it is meaningful to talk about what they feel like as if this is some objective property of the universe. So I don’t think you’re really talking about conscious states at all, but still about qualia.

    He doesn’t hit his hand with the hammer because his brain is wired to avoid the conscious state we call pain. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is sensible to regard the “what-it-feels-like-ness” of pain as a real thing. Robots can also be easily programmed to avoid certain stimuli, but that doesn’t mean they have conscious experiences.

    “That would seem that there are some things in our Universe about which Naturalism has nothing to say.”

    Possibly, if there are things in the universe which are not reducible to physical events. I still think that when you say “conscious states” you are in fact referring to qualia, and I’m not sure that qualia are really in the universe at all. They are in the mind if they are anywhere, and I don’t really think the mind is in the universe in the same way as physical objects are. I think the mind is an abstract object.

    The kinds of things which may exist in the universe about which Naturalism has nothing to say are perhaps things like corporations, governments, languages, loyalty, prejudice, discrimination. These are high-level constructions that have very little to do with the interactions between atomic interactions.

    For example, the signing of a treaty is a meaningful high-level event which simply doesn’t exist from reductionist, physicalist viewpoint. However, the movement of the pen is a physical event. I think one can plausibly argue that naturalism is relevant for the latter but not the former.

    So the important thing about naturalism is not that everything can be explained from a physical perspective but that high-level events cannot contradict the physical perspective, or alternatively that all physical events can be explained with regard to physical law.

  18. Hi Coel, Robin,

    I think you’re both wrong on different counts. I think Robin is wrong to say his scenario has nothing to do with the Chinese Room. I think it’s very similar to the Chinese room indeed. In both cases we have a functional capability to understand and model a mental process without direct first-person experience of what that feels like.

    I think Coel is wrong to say that understanding the functional description of brain activity would mean they understand what it feels like to be nauseous. Like Nagel, I think that no matter how well we understand the neurology of bats, we will never understand what it feels like to echo-locate. Nor can we imagine what it feels like to see more colours than we do, like the mantis shrimp. I imagine even an ordinary colour-blind human cannot vividly imagine what it must be like to have normal colour vision, and I don’t think any amount of neuroscientific understanding could rectify this.

  19. I am most bemused by the idea that we can split off science (and scientific methods of inquiry) from mathematics and logic. Scientisms of all flavours suppose the existence of scientific reasoning, which is rational and mathematical in nature. Not having read the Lange paper
    cited, I would still strongly argue that a logical argument showing hypothesis X cannot be true is just as scientific as an experimental disconfirmation.

    I think the scientisms also mostly subscribe to a minimal ethic that characterizes the scientific endeavour as a humanistic institution: knowledge is a good that should be increased, for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons; all are free to think and question, and ideas should be exchanged freely; participants in the great work of increasing knowledge are all on an equal footing. And this is associated with a pragmatic belief that institutions not respecting these maxims will be outcompeted by institutions that do.

  20. Dear Massimo,
    I agree that we agree on much. The main disagreement is on:

    And I do count mathematics and logic as providing us knowledge, which is not inherently scientific.

    As a physicist, this distinction between maths and physics doesn’t ring true to me (that is the main topic of the piece that I submitted to you, so I won’t elaborate here).

    it is simply untenable to think of science as value free.

    I accept that human attempts at science are inevitably infused with human values. As a physicist I would maintain that we are attempting to get at an external reality that is independent of human values.

  21. Hi Robin,
    you still seem to me to be building your conclusion into your initial premises.

    You are assuming that a **complete** understanding of all mathematical aspects of a universe would not include understanding of the experience of pain.

    That premise may indeed by valid, but still needs to be argued for. It’s not obviously true to me, and I think that our brains would be very poor at conceptualising what a *complete* “mathematical” understanding would actually be, and thus we can’t validate that premise just by intuition.

    A *complete* mathematical account would have to include not only the basics of the basic building blocks, but also the weird and wonderful array of complex patterns that those building blocks gave rise to.

    Would that then include the experience of pain? I’m tempted to say that it obviously would not be complete if it didn’t, and that therefore a *complete* mathematical description would have to do so.

    Of course both your initial premise and my response could be accused of question-begging.

  22. You can understand something and not experience it.

    I accept that one can partially understand something one has never experienced, but is it possible to *completely* understand something one has never experienced?

  23. Robin,
    I don’t agree with Sam Harris’s views that science can replace philosophy in terms of normative morality but I have different reasons from yours. I think where Sam goes wrong is that he wants to have it both ways, he doesn’t want to use philosophy (not sure why) but than he assumes a quasi-utilitarian view to support his moral views. He of course could try to use a well-being calculus as his moral criteria but he needs to actually defend that and why it’s the criteria we ought to use as opposed to others. His use of a continuum where everyone’s well-being increases linearly could easily be modified into more complex models for society. I assume that is what Sam means when he wants to use science, which makes perfect sense to do after you have set some normative criteria.

    His scientism IMO however is from the fact that he simply assumes his normative criteria and pretends it is a scientific fact. This seems to be a larger trend that I see too regarding scientism, which is either a rejection of normative domains all together, which becomes self-defeating as to reject normative, you’d have to use normative criteria, or to pretend that we can have normative criteria from brute empirical facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.

  24. I think I can show, at least, where and why scientism goes wrong. [Sam Harris stuff] So that is what I have against scientism …

    Note that your argument is only against Sam Harris’s argument, or against Harris’s particular version of “scientism”, it is not an argument against “scientism” in general (however that is defined).

  25. Isn’t the key question here whether an universe with multiple types of entities or domains (such as a material world and a Platonic world as Prof. Piglucci and many other others would have it,)
    can be self-consistent or coherent? It seems to have been well established long ago that Cartesian or any other dualism or pluralism aren’t.

    The structure of both idealist and materialist ontology may both hold together in a way dualist or pluralist ontologies do not. Maybe formally they are even identical as you say. But does that really mean that there is no difference? I think you could say there is a radically different epistemology. In a materialist universe, knowledge is that which can be demonstrated to others. In a mental universe, only experience is knowledge. As it happens, I think the latter choice leads you down the drain.

    As to the general question of what naturalism might mean, I think it is meant, consciously or not, as an equivocation. Naturalism is opposed to materialism, but the prestige of science (which is perceived to be materialist,) is such that it doesn’t wish to be idealist. Which I think is also a position you don’t want to be caught upholding because it’s pretty indefensible. But that’s me.

  26. One quick note: Rejection of causality and such quaint notions usually means accepting some other notions, such as the nonexistence of time or complete determinism or antirealism. There are reasons why this is a provocative idea, not conventional wisdom. For scientists at least. These notions are compatible with naturalism. Or at least, as far as I can tell, that’s why there’s a different word, naturalism, to distinguish some ideas from old fashioned materialism.

    Which is why it seems so wrong to me to create some boogeyman called scientism. There is a desperate need for some term for an approach more materialistic than naturalism yet open to more flexible yet more prudent interpretations held over from the nineteenth century.

  27. Wrapping it up, first, I did write amateur, not amateurish. I’m not one who thinks amateur necessarily means inferior.

    As to Platonism and mathematical knowledge? As it happens Koenigsberg is empirically in a locally Euclidean world, so the mathematical proof does indeed apply. I strongly suspect that topologists have proven there is no possible surface or space in which Koenigsberg could exist, where no one could have crossed all seven bridges just once. I think then by the mathematicians’ touchstone, we don’t know.

    As I say, I think that if you actually walked the streets of old Koenigsberg, you could have disproved the conjecture. You might even claim that this would merely be doing math without paper. I would only disagree that it is “merely.” The tediously mundane and the seemingly pure and abstract mathematical do overlap.

    Like the Pythagorean theorem on Euclidean planes and spheres, what you “know” tends to depend upon what you choose. Arithmetic without zero, the axiom of choice, the continuum hypothesis…And let’s not forget the foundational problems in mathematics and logic that so bedevilled Bertrand Russell and Kurt Godel!

    It was a little disappointing when I asked, what do we know when we know some theorem in those parts of math for whose concepts we cannot sketch a connection to the empirical? We “know” about Calabi-Yau manifolds, but which apply? Or to put it another, rather familiar way, where do the mathematical objects exist? You can get indignant about the Pythagorean theorem being true, but it’s not always “true,” unless you choose the right conditions. Nor can you reliably use the “knowledge” of the Pythagorean theorem outside mathematics, as any plane or ship on a great circle route knows. And they know it in a way rather different from a mathematician.

    I’m sorry I cannot agree that mathematics and logic provide knowledge in any sense useful in defining or refuting “scientism.” It conflates too many different notions of “knowledge” and even “truth,” to be a valid (and easy) refutation.

    “Well, there is also aesthetics, no?”

    I didn’t know the red-headed stepchild of philosophy made any truth claims? I’ve taken up some desultory reading in esthetics but I haven’t gotten much further than Aristotle’s Poetics, Henry James’ The Art of the Novel, Tolstoy’s What is Art? Burke and Lessing and Schiller are on the agenda if I live long enough. Now that I think of it, I shouldn’t be relying on the scientistic Aristotle?

    “My point exactly. Yet another area of human concern where science is irrelevant.”

    Knowledge is power. I don’t see how it is ever irrelevant. Nor do I quite see how “concern” crept into the topic.

    “But there are plenty of real phenomena that are not observable, from my thoughts to what’s happening right now at the other end of the galaxy.”

    Of course your thoughts, at least some of them, are observable by you. It might take scientific instruments to detect other aspects of your thinking, though. Also, you could tell us. I must protest that I did not write all observers everywhere. I don’t even think I implied it. It would be uncharitable of me to say you implied that a phenomenon unobservably far away at the other end of the galaxy is therefore not real.

    “This is an often misdirected counter of scientism critics. I am not claiming that science will not be able to discover X or Y, within a certain domain. I am claiming that for a number of domains science itself is irrelevant (or pernicious). The two propositions are not at all the same.”

    Well, it seems to me that every demonstration that science is irrelevant relies on the notion that science cannot discover whatever it is being offered up as a “domain,” whether it’s personal experience or the Platonic realm or “understanding” or “concern.” So I can’t agree the two propositions are not at all the same. As for perniciousness, I don’t think you’ve made a case at all. I think some have fooled themselves (or fraudulently pretend, who can tell if they’re sincere?) that old theological and philosophical tenets are, for once, genuine knowledge in the sense of being true about the universe. They’ve ignored the practical limits of science in favor of their hopes and dreams, and confirmed their personal philosophy.

  28. Steven, rejection of causality creates other problems since we have to explain why causality so reliably works on a macro scale. That would require a patchwork world of causality. I’m afraid rejecting causality creates many more problems than it solves.

  29. Robin,
    And, let’s face it, a hands-off God could still create a Universe in which the laws do not form a unified whole.
    That depends on the version of God you imagine. As it happens I believe that the laws of nature are a property of God and this is what give them their everywhere, all the time, exception-less prescriptive power. In that case the laws of nature are a unified whole. If this belief, that the laws of nature are a property of God, is true, then it is easy to see why God should be present everywhere, acting everywhere and keeping all things in existence, since that is already true of the laws of nature.

    Alternatively, let us imagine that the laws of nature are not a unified whole. Where does that leave us? Necessarily then we have subsets of the laws of nature that are somehow discontinuous at the boundaries of their domains. That would be a strange kind of world because there would be no reason why the domains are coherent or consistent.

  30. Robin,
    My hunch is that if there is a God then he did not create a Universe at all since nobody but him would get to see it.
    That is a most perceptive comment! Very few get this vital point. What you are referring to is the block universe where all instances in time are equally real. In a world of perfect causality an all powerful, all knowing God (Laplace’s demon?) would have no need to create since God would know with perfect clarity every possible outcome, at any instant in time, from any possible set of starting conditions.

    From this you can conclude that our existence shows there is no God since God has no need to create. Or, alternatively you can conclude that God gave his creation free will so that his creation can extend itself in novel, unforeseeable ways. In other words, because we possess free will, the outcome is not foreseeable by God and the only way for God to know the outcome is to create the universe with creatures gifted with free will, so that he can observe what actually transpires.

    What we have here is a test for falsifying the existence of God. If it can be definitively shown that free will does not exist then we can conclude that God does not exist.

  31. Robin,
    My hunch is that if there is a God then he did not create a Universe at all since nobody but him would get to see it.
    To continue my previous comment. I believe that if God exists he must necessarily have given his creatures free will so that the act of creation can continue in novel, unforeseeable ways, otherwise there would be no need to create.

    If that is true then the possession of free will is an attribute of vital importance to God’s purpose of creation. From that it follows that world is a stage set up to allow the full, unfettered exercise of free will, in other words, God does not ordinarily intervene in this world. It also follows then that God would never override our free will, no matter what the consequence. From all of this flows the inevitability of natural evil and moral evil.

  32. Robin,
    If you believe in a Thomist God, ie a necessarily existing intelligent, empathetic being who is the ultimate creator of all contingent things then the nature of that God could be a source of transcendent values
    There is a problem here. Why should we believe in an empathetic God? God could equally well be an impersonal being, merely observing the outcome of his creation. How can we tell if there is a caring God?

    However, if one believes in a creator God where we, his creatures, are the necessary agents for extending his creation, then we have good reasons for believing in God’s values for us. The success of extending God’s creation would then depend on our success as creative agents. God then would desire values for us that would maximise our success as creative agents. For example, reciprocity, altruism and love would give each person the maximum opportunity to flourish as a creative agent. Note that, as a consequence, I am defining flourishing as that which would maximise our utility as creative agents acting in the service of God.

  33. Coel,
    qualia can only be experienced. They cannot be known or understood, that is a category error.

  34. The Allegory of the Scientist and the Formicarium

    The Scientist wished to study the evolution of ants through various stages until they developed a high level of cognition. To this end he constructed a large formicarium in the basement of his lab. The conditions were very carefully controlled for optimum conditions for evolution. It was carefully guarded against extraneous influences such as light, heat, vibration, shock or the presence of the observer Scientist. It was intended to be a fully self contained environment such that the evolution of the ants was not influenced by extraneous factors. This was a good and careful Scientist.

    Over time the ants went through various stages of Darwinian evolution and eventually developed significant cognitive skills. With the cognitive skills came a spirit of curiosity and they started asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. Some ant philosophers deduced that there was a larger order and constructed the Scientist hypothesis to explain the larger order. Some ant scientists replied that formicarium was all there was, there was no Scientist because he was invisible and silent. And in any case, it was science all the way down. When challenged with the origin of the evident order of formicarium design, the ant scientists replied that the formicarium had obviously self constructed randomly from nothing and that clearly there were countless other formicariums spontaneously bursting forth out of nothingness. Some daring ant scientists even claimed the formicarium was automatically recycling itself. These ant scientists came to be collectively known as scientismists (by their friends) and scientologists(by their enemies). In any case, ant scientismists gained in confidence as their local predictions proved to be true and they assertively declared that all of ant creation could be explained by ant science and what could not be explained by ant science did not exist.

    Let’s leave the philosopher, theologian and scientist ants to their debates. What they could not understand was that even if the Scientist had stood before them they would not have seen the Scientist, that if the Scientist had spoken they would not have heard the speech or understood it. Moreover, if the Scientist had conveyed his speech, the things he would speak about would be utterly incomprehensible to the ants. For example, the Scientist’s love of Handel’s Messiah would be beyond their comprehension.

    The ants were trapped by two assumptions. The first assumption was that they could observe everything that was to be observed(clearly untrue). The second assumption was that they could understand everything that was to be understood. But how could they when they lacked the cognitive processing power, knowledge, experiential faculties and mental categories? This was obvious to the Scientist but ant philosophers and scientists had fallen into the sticky trap of ant scientism.

    The observer Scientist smiled tolerantly as he watched this behaviour and wrote out the title for his next paper, The Dogmatic Certainty of Scientism in the Presence of Ignorance. A study of intelligent ant behaviour under conditions of complete isolation.

  35. Hi Aldo,
    I liked your fish tank analogy. See also my post about the Scientist and the Formicarium, further down.

  36. Hi labnut,
    So you’re building “incapable of being understood” into the very definition of qualia? Hmmm.

  37. “Dr. Ian Combay once said to me, in a private conversation, that I could, after all, assure the society of personoids of my existence. Now, this I most certainly shall not do. For it would have all the appearance to me of soliciting a sequel – that is, a reaction on their part. But what exactly could they do or say to me, that I would not feel the profound embarrassment, the painful sting of my position as their unfortunate Creator? The bills for the electricity consumed have to paid quarterly…”

  38. Thanks, Labnut, for the amusing allegory about the fornicarium… emmm formicarium (sorry, the pun is lame but I could not disappoint you by deftly stepping around your plant).

    I could continue on the trajectory by indicating that the paper written by the Observer Scientist (OS) was rejected by the Peer Reviewers. Writing the opinion for the majority Dr. Freud argued that blaming the”other” for one’s own errors or short-comings was a classic psychological error. The set-up of the experiment – studying ant evolution – had been violated by allowing for an element, “curious” consciousness, that inevitably led to undecidable questions, thus disrupting the very process the experiment wanted to study. Dr. Freud ruefully admitted to have been himself the source of undecidable theories, and having blamed Oedipus for killing his father in order to jump in bed with his mother, when in fact Oedipus did not know that the bully he met and slay was his father, or Jocasta his mother. For the minority Dr. Gödel wrote the dissenting opinion, but his elaborations were too impenetrable for the panel to take into account.

    Rumor has it that the ants in the experiment are suing the OS requesting exemplary damages on account of the poor experimental set-up. A restraining order has been issued against the OS, who intended to cast ants not believing his existence into eternal fire. An amicus curiae brief argues that such a fire in addition would greatly contribute to climate change within the ant-heap.

  39. David,
    the difference is that the ants are incapable of perceiving our world.

  40. Hi labnut,
    Nice allegory. Of course your allegory neatly refutes its own purpose. You see, what you want those ants to conclude is that their world was designed and set up by a Scientist. But you regard that as a thoroughly unsatisfactory explanation don’t you? You’d suggest that it is ludicrious to suggest that our world and human scientists in it just are, you suggest that the only sensible explanation is that it was designed and set up by a Super-Scientist. Of course, if the argument of your allegory holds, then those Super-Scientists would have to, by the same logic, argue for a Super-Duper-Scientist. Et cetera, ad infinitium.

    So what you’d like to do is to declare “let’s stop here” at an arbitrary stopping point (in this case the level above the level above the ants) and thus accept that as “it is so” and ask no further. But declaring such a stop is entirely counter to the whole thrust of the allegory.

  41. Coel,
    Nice allegory” Thanks.
    what you want those ants to conclude is that their world was designed and set up by a Scientist
    The point of the allegory is that it is impossible for the ants, with the science and cognitive tools at their disposal, to reach any such conclusion. There is a world forever beyond their ken and they have no way of knowing this. What is even worse, they are unaware of their limits. They live in a WYSIWYG world and the comfortable certainty that this is all there is. This is a delusion created by their environment.

    We, the omniscient third party observers, can easily see this is not true but that knowledge is denied to the ants.

    Scientism rests on two assumptions:
    1) all that is can be observed by us, using the tools of science,
    2) all that is can be understood and explained by us, using the tools of science,
    if not now, then eventually, given enough time.

    But is that assumption true? What would an omniscient, third party observer say?
    My thought experiment is intended to show that it need not be true, that there can be boundaries to what science can reveal to us.

    What lies beyond those boundaries? Philosophy and theology try to answer those questions but their answers will always be tentative ones, in strong contrast to the certainty that science seems to provide.

    Scientism claims that nothing lies beyond those boundaries, but how it could it possibly know this?

  42. There are two aspects here. The more fundamental one, is that this is merely an expanded example of the difficulty of prioritizing changes in well being for an individual. How can one meaningfully rank the banana scenario vs. the orange scenario?

    The other aspect, the supposed difficulty in ranking scenarios where some are benefited where others are harmed, is more an illusion but it is a little trickier. The question you have to answer before you can claim this objection refutes Harris is “Can it be empirically established that there is some trait that first distinguishes some individuals as different in a way that must cause difference consequences?” (I think you must agree that any empirical morality starts by ruling out what must be and what cannot, no? Unlike theology or philosophy which begin by defining what ought to be.)

    I think the brief answer is that if empirical morality finds that people are pretty much the same, i.e., equal, every scenario that starts with a privileged person or class is just wrong. Partial benefits then have to be ranked by the necessity of the consequences. Generally, the vast majority of philosophers do adhere to this rule, agreeing that economics as expounded by their academic peers, has indeed demonstrated the absolute necessity for capitalism, where some people are owners, and the rest are not. But as it happens there are people who contend the claims of economics are wrong. If empirical morality is to be accepted as easy and objective and unchangeable, unarguable fact, I can only say that ignoring the practical limits of science, including social science, is wrong.

  43. OK, fair point. What you’re considering is effectively a causally disconnected parallel universe, with no information flow from that universe to ours. Hence we could never know about it. I agree with you on that.

    But I don’t think it’s true to then say:

    Scientism claims that nothing lies beyond those boundaries, but how it could it possibly know this?

    Scientism would just shrug about the claim of causally disconnected universes. Yes in principle they could “exist”, though they could never affect us and we could never know about them. In that sense the possibility is uninteresting.

    When you say:

    Scientism rests on two assumptions:
    1) all that is can be observed by us, using the tools of science, …

    I agree, with the proviso that all that “is” is limited to what is part of (causally connected to) our universe.

  44. In the comment to N:
    “Wow! The hubris! I’d like a physicist to try and work out why it is necessary, according to, say, quantum mechanics (currently the best theory in physics) that I be writing these very words.”
    I think that there are two things mixing here. One thing is to say that everything that exists is necessary, other way too different is to say that one can explain the necessity of all the actions and beings….in the Universe. Of course that kind of work is humanly impossible. So, I would say that to choose between determinism and indetreminism is a matter of fate.

  45. Massimo, a very interesting pot-pouri of scientistic position. Since pingbacks seems to be disabled in Scientia Salon, I’ll leave a link to a greek translation of this article here.


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