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. I guess most scientist aren’t “scientisticists”: they just try to uncover reality the best they can and don’t go much further than D (I may be wrong…). The rest of us must try to make sense of our lives, but it really is no use to contradict what was already settled in science (even taking into account that nothing is 100% settled). If we have other ideas and think we know better, we may try to contradict science using science. I’m not saying that what science discovered is very significant (I think it is in many fields, not so much in some others), but what it did discover must be taken into account by the rest of us — or refuted using science.

    Regarding (D), I’m not a philosopher of science, but surely there is a way we can distinguish science from pseudo-science? Popperism is not enough, but it may give us some clues? In a very fuzzy way, I think science always tries to test its assertions using the world in a rational way that takes into account our human bias. Does this make any sense?

    Also: I know the position that we were doing science all along is quite strange, but maybe we can identify activities that we could call “science” before the scientific revolution.

    Finally, I hold the position that science is a part of rational thought. What we can adjudicate using the world is science. What we can adjudicate using our minds is philosophy, mathematics, etc. Of course this is a simplistic duality, but it makes some sense to me. In the end, we are engaging in intellectual endeavors guided by reason and rational inquiry into the world.

  2. 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 trouble with that definition is that it makes scientism wrong by definition. Which makes it not a position that anyone would hold or defend (it’s solely something to accuse someone else of). Which then means we need other words for the versions of scientism-like stances that people actually hold to.

    • Did scientism initially mean something different? I thought it always meant excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques?

      If this is correct, it doesn’t make sense why scientism should refer to people with scientific world views. Why not use naturalism instead?

      • The term “scientism” did indeed originate as derogatory, an accusation made about others.

        However, having it as a rag-bag term for various ways of going wrong isn’t all that useful and means you have to use other terms when discussing what is or is not valid.

      • I don’t know if it’s not useful or at least less useful than say pseudoscience. Looking at Massimo’s comment above, you can see a common theme of types of over extensions of science to domains where it does not apply even though they are not exactly the same types of errors. Similarly, pseudoscience is not just one monolith type of bad science but it’s still useful.

        And again, why not use naturalism to refer to a scientific worldview? It seems like a perfectly good way to describe a view based on science and doesn’t require a change in the word like scientism, which from the very beginning was meant to indicate an error and not something to embrace.

      • And again, why not use naturalism to refer to a scientific worldview?

        There’s a difference between naturalism and a scientific worldview on the one hand, and scientism (the sorts of scientism that people would seriously defend) on the other. To take an example, Steve Gould advocated naturalism and a scientific worldview, but also advocated NOMA, which is the opposite of scientism. Thus scientism (the sort of scientism that people would defend) is a particular view about science and the nature of reality and is, in essence, a rejection of NOMA and a stance that all knowledge is empirical.

        Of course, what one actually calls this view is semantics. Perhaps “empiricism” is a better term than scientism (and has a long history). But much of what critics often *accuse* of being “scientism” (implying it is false), some of us think is actually valid and defendable. In that sense we adopt the word and apply it to what we’re defending.

      • Interesting Coel, I’m still not quite getting the distinctions your making but I’ll be interested in reading your essay if it gets published here and see if I can make better sense of it.

  3. Dear Massimo,
    I started writing a comment on this, but it rapidly got waaaaay too long. So I’m going to tidy it up and send it to you to see if you’re interested in accepting it as a “submission”. But a quick comment: This article very much has the flavour of lining up a long row of straw men and then blasting each of them with a shotgun from 2 feet.

    • Hard to see how many of these points are straw men, insofar as I can find video on Youtube of scientists like Lawrence Krauss and sort-of-scientists like Sam Harris saying them, in about 30 seconds. Of course, it’ll depend on which points you have in mind, but I am thinking of the more sharply critical ones, such as E, G, H, T, & V

  4. There is only one statement here that I disagree with somewhat. Under E. you say “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.” That may be true strictly speaking in the present moment, but this may change in the future. It is very possible that at some point your brain processes could be understood to such a high degree that the precise physical triggering mechanisms and your brain’s specific responses could be identified. If you look at marketing and consumerism today, this is already happening, but in a crude way. The commercial trend is toward identifying an individual’s pleasure centers in order to extract profits. The ideal consumer would be a person who lives in a customized virtual reality that supplies just the right stream of enjoyment. In principle, I see no reason why, in the future, new Shakespearean plays and jazz riffs customized for Massimo Pigliucci couldn’t be produced through artificial intelligence. In order for your claim to be true, that would have to be impossible, but I don’t think it is, because “exceedingly difficult technologically” isn’t the same as “logically impossible.”

  5. Doesn’t the comment on B contradict the comment on D? However do we know that science emerged fully formed in the sixteenth century, if not by the full conceptualization of scientific method(s)? My answer would be that science is distinguished largely by its concern with finding and correcting knowledge about the world. And the sixteenth century is distinguished by the accumulation of enough scientific knowledge and scientific instruments (aka technology) to carry out scientific investigation much more effectively, beginning a kind of compounding interest or virtuous circle. The necessary professionalization of science needed to master the knowledge needed for further investigation marked out science as a separate cultural institution.

    Not intending to be profoundly shocking, but I’m pretty sure that Euler did not discover the impossibility of crossing all the bridges of Koenigsburg just once. I’m also pretty sure that someone could have strolled through Koenigburg and announced at each bridge, that to reach another island or a riverbank that you either needed another bridge or to cross the same bridge twice. Then they just walk around counting bridges. Is this empirical or mathematical? Euler’s invention of graph theory is much more useful, even for the rather mundane purpose of saving shoe leather. As for those parts of mathematics that are not abstractions from empirical reality? What do we know when we know the properties of a hypercube or hypersphere? What do we know when we solve a problem in modal logic?

    There are also a number of comments privileging personal experience as knowledge. I don’t know why information from a sensus divinitatis would be just as much knowledge as information about the taste of a dirty martini.

    Also, I still think N is more or less a straw man. It should be written as “Nothing is real without a physical cause.”

    I don’t know why the practical limits mentioned in F are not referred to more often. It seems to me that the insistence there are limits in principle to what science can discover have always failed. Yet it seems that one can fairly easily determine “excessive belief” as that which ignores or falsifies practical limits. It’s true that this standard tends to show that “scientism” isn’t much of a problem. This suggests that “scientism” is a red herring.

    The notion that science cannot address values is mistaken. The empirical determination of values held by human beings in different cultures is of huge relevance to ethics. The empirical determination of variation in values held by human beings in the same culture is possibly even more importance in ethics. Is it possible the determination to create some boogey called scientism is aimed at privileging values as determined by theological or metaphysical speculation, or personal intuition over that of others?

    I can’t really agree that the alphabet soup is a very good approach to defining “scientism.” I think scientism is a set of fundamental ideas about the world.

    There is an objective reality.
    Knowledge is a proposition demonstrated to correspond to that reality.
    Intuition, psychological introspection, logical analysis, metaphysical speculation or divine revelation have never attained knowledge.

    Direct observation is limited and can be erroneous.

    Rigorous, systematic testing of experience (a set of changing practices called scientific method) has been the only way to attain knowledge.

    People should only accept propositions about reality for which there is evidence.

    Knowledge is power, and therefore intrinsically desirable as a means to ends.

    It is prudent to forego impossibilities and obey necessity and vital to correctly distinguish.

    The variability of human ends is something to discover. not to ordain.

    Science and technology are conceptually distinguishable, but continuous in reality.

    Any suggestion that science as such is somehow setting any goal other than the satisfaction of curiosity is wrong.

  6. For the time being, a quick comment and url for the definition of scientism in the Skeptic’s Dictionary (http://www.skepdic.com/scientism.html) which appears to favor Shermer’s vantage point. It seems that underlying some of Massimo’s post and some of the comments on it is some notion of naturalism. SEP contains over 10 pages of various articles on this subject. So perhaps a word or two from Massimo that unpacks naturalism from scientism might be fruitful to explore.

  7. ‘Yeah, please see eugenics and other “scientific” forms of social engineering for a quick retort.’
    So, do you consider eugenics to be scientific or not? If so, then why the scare quotes? If not, then how is this an argument against using science (without scare quotes) to better human society?

  8. Marco,

    “Regarding (D), I’m not a philosopher of science, but surely there is a way we can distinguish science from pseudo-science?”

    Yes, there is, but it has little to do with the existence of a precisely specifiable scientific method. I recently co-edited a collection of essays devoted to this very topic, published by Chicago Press as Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.

    “ maybe we can identify activities that we could call “science” before the scientific revolution”

    Yes, and I mention that in the essay. But this hardly affects my main points, I think.

    Coel,

    “The trouble with that definition is that it makes scientism wrong by definition.”

    That’s right. Scientism has always been intended as a mistaken position, never as a positive one. It’s like complaining that “stupid” is insulting by definition. It is, that’s the point.

    “I’m going to tidy it up and send it to you to see if you’re interested in accepting it as a ‘submission’.”

    Received it, will look at it as soon as possible.

    “This article very much has the flavour of lining up a long row of straw men and then blasting each of them with a shotgun from 2 feet.”

    Obviously, I disagree.

    Paul,

    “you say ‘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.’ That may be true strictly speaking in the present moment, but this may change in the future.”

    I don’t see how. But if it does, then we’ll talk about it. It is one of the most annoying features of scientism that people say something along the lines of “I have no idea how X can be done by science now, but you just wait and see..” Okay, we’ll wait and see. Right now, though, my position stands.

    “It is very possible that at some point your brain processes could be understood to such a high degree that the precise physical triggering mechanisms and your brain’s specific responses could be identified.”

    No doubt. And how would that bit of knowledge enhance my enjoinment of Shakespeare?

    “The ideal consumer would be a person who lives in a customized virtual reality that supplies just the right stream of enjoyment.”

    Sounds like a nightmare, and one more reason to be weary of certain aspects of techno-scientific “progress.”

    “I see no reason why, in the future, new Shakespearean plays and jazz riffs customized for Massimo Pigliucci couldn’t be produced through artificial intelligence.”

    A new Shakespeare play is, of course, an impossibility. And yes, AI may be able to produce jazz-sounding music, but that isn’t what I was talking about: I said that no scientific analysis (presented to me) will improve my experience of favorite pieces of jazz. The two are very different things.

    imzasirf,

    “it doesn’t make sense why scientism should refer to people with scientific world views. Why not use naturalism instead?”

    Right, scientism is not the same as naturalism.

    Steven,

    “Doesn’t the comment on B contradict the comment on D? However do we know that science emerged fully formed in the sixteenth century, if not by the full conceptualization of scientific method(s)?”

    I don’t think I said that science emerged “fully formed” in the 16th century. But at any rate, “science” is a complex social activity characterized by certain norms, values, and procedures — but not by a simple algorithm that describes its general method. I don’t see any contradiction there.

    “I’m pretty sure that Euler did not discover the impossibility of crossing all the bridges of Koenigsberg just once. I’m also pretty sure that someone could have strolled through Koenigsberg and announced at each bridge, that to reach another island or a riverbank that you either needed another bridge or to cross the same bridge twice. Then they just walk around counting bridges. Is this empirical or mathematical?”

    I fail to see what that has to do with my point. The reason the bridges of Koenigsberg cannot be crossed without retracing one’s steps is a perfectly good example of a mathematical impossibility, regardless of who discovered it and how.

    “I don’t know why information from a sensus divinitatis would be just as much knowledge as information about the taste of a dirty martini.”

    Because everyone can taste a dirty martini, but apparently only a self-selected number of people are endowed with sensus divinitatis.

    “I still think N is more or less a straw man. It should be written as ‘Nothing is real without a physical cause.’”

    That was John’s wording, not mine. But even your revised version would exclude, for instance, mathematical objects from reality. I don’t see why.

    “it seems that one can fairly easily determine ‘excessive belief’ as that which ignores or falsifies practical limits. It’s true that this standard tends to show that ‘scientism’ isn’t much of a problem. This suggests that ‘scientism’ is a red herring.”

    First off, I made it clear that I do think there are areas of human experience where science will not have much bearing, or where a scientistic approach is actually dangerous (see eugenics). Second, even if we limited criticism to excessive belief I don’t see how this would turn scientism into a red herring, unless you think there is no problem with excessive (i.e., unsubstantiated) belief in anything.

    “The notion that science cannot address values is mistaken. The empirical determination of values held by human beings in different cultures is of huge relevance to ethics.”

    A bait and switch, and a misreading of what I wrote. I did say that empirical information is valuable to ethics, it just doesn’t determine values. And, of course, empirical is not at all the same as scientific.

    “Is it possible the determination to create some boogey called scientism is aimed at privileging values as determined by theological or metaphysical speculation, or personal intuition over that of others?”

    It is bizarre to accuse me of privileging theological speculation. And the very point of criticism of scientism is not to unduly privilege any approach to understanding, including the scientific one.

    “There is an objective reality. Knowledge is a proposition demonstrated to correspond to that reality. Intuition, psychological introspection, logical analysis, metaphysical speculation or divine revelation have never attained knowledge.”

    Some of these are true, but they are simply a part of naturalism. As for introspection, intuition and logical analysis having never attained knowledge, that is simply false.

    “Any suggestion that science as such is somehow setting any goal other than the satisfaction of curiosity is wrong.”

    Really? So all the billions of dollars going annually into medical or defense research are meant to satisfy curiosity and nothing else?

    Thomas,

    “perhaps a word or two from Massimo that unpacks naturalism from scientism might be fruitful to explore.”

    Well, I think scientism has been unpacked in quite a bit of detail in this essay and in John’s original one. As for naturalism, this is simply the philosophical position that all there is is the natural world (i.e., no transcendence, supernaturalism, etc.). It is hardly a controversial position in philosophy, and it doesn’t require excessive faith in science to establish. I’ll be happy to elaborate more if you or others will point me to areas in need of further clarification.

    Benjamin,

    “do you consider eugenics to be scientific or not? If so, then why the scare quotes? If not, then how is this an argument against using science (without scare quotes) to better human society?”

    Eugenics was flawed but not absurd science. What was absurd was the application of genetic principles to the “improvement” of humanity by means of force. That is, it was science done without the guidance of ethics. Really, really bad idea. And of course I never suggested that science shouldn’t be used to better human society.

    • Scientism has always been intended as a mistaken position, never as a positive one. It’s like complaining that “stupid” is insulting by definition. It is, that’s the point.

      I’ll still try to reclaim the word!, though it may be that adopting some other word would be better.

      Eugenics was flawed but not absurd science. What was absurd was the application of genetic principles to the “improvement” of humanity by means of force. That is, it was science done without the guidance of ethics. Really, really bad idea.

      First, eugenics isn’t really “flawed” science, it works and works well and we use it all the time in farming. Second, it wasn’t done “without the guidance of ethics”, it was done with a strong ethical motivation — an ethical motivation that most of us consider to be very bad ethics. The knowledge that science gives is just a tool, and we use that tool (eugenics) in farming, where most of us consider the ethics to be acceptable (some vegetarians do not). But science in itself never provides motivations, and the motivations for pursuing eugenics came from people and their ethical motivations (ones that we consider to be bad).

      Thus eugenics is a “flaw” in science or scientism only in the same sense that atomic bombs are. Science is the tool that can be used to create a bomb, but it is people, with their desires and ethics, who decide whether to build and launch the bomb.

    • Massimo, I have two questions related to naturalism and supernaturalism. First, is the idea of the brain as a receiver for some signal coming from whatever dimension or unobservable place a supernatural belief? Second, is the idea that god guides evolution by curating mutations a supernatural belief? Can these beliefs be countenanced by naturalism?

      • Neither of those beliefs are necessarily contra naturalism in themselves, but they are now contradicted by so much evidence that only supernaturalism can sustain them. As such, while in principle these might be or have been compatible with naturalism, in practice they are not.

      • DM, how are they contradicted by the evidence? I’m not aware of any evidence that precludes our brains being receivers for some central consciousness-conferring entity. Same for the god-guided evolution thesis. What evidence is there that god isn’t curating the mutations? I don’t understand your theoretical/practical distinction here. We’re talking about naturalism, a philosophical position.

      • Hi Jake,

        It’s not that there are studies which directly refute the idea that our brains are receivers or that God guided evolution. Instead, it is that these hypotheses are ridiculously implausible given the body of knowledge about how the universe works that has already been well established. Any account of how our brains are receivers or God guided evolution would need to be consistent with this knowledge or else we would need to overthrow our understanding of physics, which is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence which does not exist.

        I don’t understand your theoretical/practical distinction here. We’re talking about naturalism, a philosophical position.

        OK, let me try again. A priori, knowing very little about the universe, it might be consistent with naturalism both that there are conscious beings which remotely control us via our brains (perhaps sending signals encoded into some sort of radiation) and that remotely guide evolution in some way, e.g. using some kind of force field to manipulate DNA molecules during meiosis.

        In practice, knowing what we know, these are so implausible as to be effectively incompatible with naturalism. As with homoeopathy, only supernaturalism, idiocy or ignorance can allow a person to hold such beliefs given our modern understanding of how the universe works.

        (Please not that I’m not claiming that those who believe in God-driven evolution are idiotic or ignorant. I am calling them supernaturalists.)

      • I’m with you, but I have no good argument for why these beliefs are supernatural. We can certainly say these beliefs are not scientific hypotheses because they are untestable. But does that mean they’re supernatural, or incompatible with naturalism? These are those border cases that get us into the whole idea of what makes something natural. A phenomenon’s not being scientizable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s supernatural, e.g. qualia.

        I’m not so sure these ideas disagree with physics or biology or neurology. I don’t think we’d have to overturn everything we know about these disciplines to accommodate these beliefs. In fact, I think the beliefs in their modern, “sophisticated” form are devised to be compatible with everything we know about the natural world. They may be vague, but there seems to be no particular scientific evidence that refutes them. I think they’re different from homeopathy. Homeopathy is demonstrably false according to scientific studies. You can’t similarly scientize the soul or god-guided evolution.

      • 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.

  9. Lawrence Krauss has a talk that demonstrates the falsehood of K (“K. Nothing can be happening unless empirical consequences and entities/forces/laws trackable by one science or another are somehow involved”), which is his talk titled “Our Miserable Future or: Life, the Universe, and Nothing: The Future of Life and Science in an Expanding Universe.” A very short summary of that talk: “[Krauss] argued that the best evidence shows that we are in a flat, rather than an open or closed universe, which means that it will continue expanding towards some limit. He gave a history of cosmology from the discovery of the expansion of the universe to dark matter, and pointed out that we are fortunate to live in a time when the energy density of dark matter vs. ordinary matter in the universe is approximately the same, and the expanding universe is at a point where other galaxies are still visible. The upshot of this is that we are fortunate to live in a time where we have the evidence of Hubble expansion and the Big Bang. Intelligent civilizations of the distant future will be unable to see any galaxies other than their own, or any evidence of the Big Bang, and will conclude that they are in a static and eternal universe based on the best evidence that they have. Such people will be ‘lonely and ignorant, but dominant,’ which Krauss said those of us here in the U.S. are already used to. They will have an irreparably wrong picture of the universe from their epistemological blindness due to state of the universe around them. (What similar blindness do we suffer from due to our current place in the universe and observational abilities?)”

  10. This post was very instructive for me and enhanced Shook’s earlier post on the subject. As I noted then, the wording of the statements was sometimes confusing or ambiguous to me, but could be attributed to my ignorance of the subject or a nuance I missed. For example, in statement B, I was wary of what seemed an equivalence or implied causality in the phrase “reliable and valuable.”

    Your responses provided a point of reference as to how one might interpret the statements, although I can imagine others perhaps interpreting the statements differently, even if the differences might not improve the distinction.

    At any rate, in my comment on Shook’s post, I calculated that I had 1 Yes, 17 No, 5 Yes/No (3 leaning Yes, 2 leaning No), and 3 that I felt unable to answer.

    Out of curiosity, I did my own calculation of your responses:
    3 Yes, 18 No, 5 Yes/No. Your response to J (which I took to be a Yes), however, might have been included in the Yes/No.

  11. “A new Shakespeare play is, of course, an impossibility. And yes, AI may be able to produce jazz-sounding music, but that isn’t what I was talking about: I said that no scientific analysis (presented to me) will improve my experience of favorite pieces of jazz. The two are very different things.”

    Massimo, yes, obviously if a scientist walks up to you and says “I know exactly how your brain works,” that won’t change your experience of Shakespeare. What I meant was that there is no theoretical reason why a neuroscientist couldn’t figure out what it is about your Shakespeare experience that you like and replicate it or even enhance it through AI (by creating new works that simulate Shakespeare or jazz, for example). All I’m saying really is that your subjective experience of anything has a physical basis that can be studied, and eventually ways might be found to produce the same reactions that you currently are having to Shakespeare and jazz. At the commercial level a lesser version of this is already occurring. Internet companies don’t keep track of you because they like you: they’re studying you to figure out how to get you to buy things, and they’re selling that information to others who would also like to sell you things.

  12. Hi, Massimo. I just read your reply to my earlier comment. You said: “[Naturalism] is hardly a controversial position in philosophy, and it doesn’t require excessive faith in science to establish. I’ll be happy to elaborate more if you or others will point me to areas in need of further clarification.”

    My intent wasn’t to suggest that “naturalism is a controversial position in philosophy,” though it is not universally accepted by all philosophers. I simply noted that it appeared in a couple of comments. You have since commented on it. Thank you.

    • Massimo wrote: “As for naturalism, this is simply the philosophical position that all there is is the natural world (i.e., no transcendence, supernaturalism, etc.)”

      Put like that it doesn’t really mean anything. For example I could say that Shrdluism is the philosophical position that all there is is the shrdlu world, ie no transcendence, supershrdlusim etc.

      So what is the difference between Naturalism and Shrdluism? It all depends on what you mean to call something “natural” or “shrdlu”.

      • Exactly right. Naturalism cannot meaningfully be defined as simply rejecting the supernatural. You need to account for what distinguishes the supernatural from the natural.

        My own definition is that naturalism is the view that all physical events can be explained with reference to physical laws expressible mathematically. Supernaturalism is the view that some physical events happen for reasons which can only be explained with reference to high level concepts such as persons, spirits, words, thoughts etc which cannot be decomposed into unambiguously defined physical entitites.

  13. Massimo, now that you commented on naturalism, I’m curious about your opinion on what naturalism implies, if anything, beyond not believing in the supernatural? It seems to me that there could be a large number of views that could be naturalism. And relatedly, when we hear facts about how most philosophers are naturalist, I’d imagine that is one of the few things in common about their views but when you get into specifics, there are a lot of differences.

  14. I have seen discussions of naturalism that point to two components, one metaphysical, another methodological. It seems historically to have been an outgrowth of scientific inquiry. But I think Massimo wants to emphasize that it has nothing to do with scientism as perhaps characterized by the statements in this post.

  15. Wouldn’t the only difference, between what one might call ‘scientiaism’, and scientism, be that logic, mathematics and philosophy can be included within scientia, but are fundamentally independent of science? That is, scientism would not be in the business of using mathematics, logic or philosophy to reach conclusions about reality. It seems to me that such a scientism doesn’t really exist, because those who supposedly commit it do not bar philosophy, mathematics or logic from input. In such a case, wouldn’t the charge of scientism simply be the accusation that a person has erroneously defined science too broadly, such that it subsumes independent human activities? If so, doesn’t it follow that both ‘scientiaism’ and scientism(the popular one leveled at individuals who clearly still use mathematics and logic) would ultimately reach similar conclusions about reality? Of course, the charge of scientism is leveled at scientists all the time, but is it really reasonable to think that these scientists are adamant that mathematics or logic not be independent from science? It seems to me that in most cases, those who could be accused of scientism might only need be reminded(the Pythagorean theorem was a good example) that mathematics and logic are fundamentally independent of science, in which case they would clarify their position as something more like ‘scientiaism’.

  16. Massimo,

    I never commented on John Shook’s “scientism” post on your blog – I did not know what to make of it. Thank you for punctiliously doing so and for highlighting grievous excesses.

    I’d point to C as a “core” issue. C contains the ringing condemnation: “people don’t really know”. Much of the current, acrimonious tone in the conversation is to be found in each side trying to prove the other wrong in an adversary proceeding – after which the other side is led off to shame, repentance, or intellectual prison. It is an exclusionary attempt (the Greeks called it aporia). To us social beings, exclusion – ostracism – is the worst form of torture. No wonder the discussion generates more heat than clarity.

    Allow me a conjecture at the outset. Darwin dithered publishing his theory until Wallace forced him to do so. Human frailty has been alleged. My view is that it was wisdom. Darwin knew that too early publication of his theory would have led to a pointless discussion about “right” and “wrong” based on insufficient evidence (this is indeed what happened). What he aimed for, in studying barnacles and worms, was slowly make people “comfortable” with the idea, by making it plausible, nay self-evident, in a non-controversial setting. This kind of being “comfortable” would have led to a change in sensibilities and mentalities over time opening the floodgates to his worldview. [ “Sensibility” creates awareness of an adjacent possible, and “mentality” leads to exploring it in trial/error fashion.]

    Being “comfortable” is another way of saying “useful” – we’ll act on it in a trial and error fashion. More than any other species we know of, humans are unconscious learning machines. Working from analogy, from trial and error, a child in a few years becomes a consummate social being, able to navigate the material and social world. Does he need “science” to do this? Of course not. He relies on implicit trust: first in his parents, then in siblings and elders, and then in the social group, and society as a whole. I do not reach out for science to verify whether the engineer properly calculated the bridge I’ll drive over tomorrow: I’ll trust him, because I know that social controls are in place attesting to his scientific skills. I am “comfortable” with this trust because I see millions drive over the bridge without harm. I’ll do the same – still, I act on trust. Every day we trust others zillion times. It is an unconscious process that is separate from science, though it often relies on it.

    When authority replaces diffuse trust in fellow beings, one replaces the “many” with just one – whom we endow with superior, even divine powers to “know the truth.” By the same token, one denies “trustworthiness” of all others. Conversely, an adversary proceeding of right/wrong does not build trust, on the contrary: it threatens it by declaring the “loser” untrustworthy. Both approaches are destructive of trust, which is prerequisite of personal and societal adaptation.

    Socrates drinking hemlock may have signaled two things: (a) ostracism and death to him were equivalent; (b) by bowing to the group’ will he acknowledged the superior importance of social trust, even over individual autonomy. In the age-old conversation concerning the individual vs. the group (RAWLS’ “right” vs. the “good”) there is no right/wrong. Utilitarianism and Pareto-optimality are inherently contradictory, and we have to live with this fundamental tension. Once one realizes this, accommodation becomes a dynamic and ever changing goal where the quest for true/false and good/bad makes little sense. What we rather need is closure – the tentative precondition for the next round of trial and error.
    _________

  17. Thank you for your time.

    “I don’t think I said that science emerged “fully formed” in the 16th century.” Checking the OP, you wrote “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.” I stand corrected. By the way, Bacon was not a scientist, but a lawyer whose amateur philosophy makes him probably the most notorious scientistic thinker. And I should have added the Hippocratics as precursors with “elements.”

    “But at any rate, “science” is a complex social activity characterized by certain norms, values, and procedures — but not by a simple algorithm that describes its general method. I don’t see any contradiction there.” I don’t understand why goals are not listed. Norms and values seem to define scientists as groups, possibly like a church congregation? Or a shoemakers’ guild? Or a political pressure group? Or a garden club? And I can’t see that science was all that complex centuries ago. One man could reasonably hope to learn it all! Lastly the procedures of “science” are those provided by the technology of the given period, unless there really is some unique method found only in science. The work of J.D. Bernal is illuminating I think.

    The point about the bridges of Koenigsburg is simply that mathematics and “science” both study the dully empirical, hence are not independent. I think there’s a tacit assumption that any abstract generalization from gross reality is different in essence. Mathematics is naturally effective in science because it abstracts and generalizes from experience. Parts of mathematics appear to be so far abstracted from reality that it is practically foolish to insist it overlaps with empirical study like science.

    “Because everyone can taste a dirty martini, but apparently only a self-selected number of people are endowed with sensus divinitatis.” You wrote, among other things, “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.”

    First, you cannot demonstrate the Pythagorean theorem on a sphere. We are immediately back in the mundane world, where mathematics does overlap with “science.” There is no Platonic realm where the Pythagorean theorem is eternally true, prior to experience. Second, I agree with you that it matters if “everyone” can taste the dirty martinis, but not divinity, that we cannot meaningfully call a personal experience “knowledge.” Third, I’m not at all sure how science has anything to do with approving your pleasure in tasting dirty martinis. I thought it was the province of theology, philosophy and law (during Prohibition,) to dispense approval or disapproval. About the only thing science has had to say on the taste for dirty martinis relates to the medical hypothesis of alcoholism.

    Yes, it was Mr. Shook, not you, who phrased N in such an extreme way to make an easy target. I didn’t mean to imply that you did, my apologies. Your comment about the realism of mathematical objects refers back to M. In Mr. Shook’s version, it was “A thing can’t have any reality unless it can be theoretically confirmed by one of the biological or natural sciences.”
    I would phrase this as “Real phenomena are observable by multiple observers.” Observable includes all the various methods of scientific investigation available. Phrased negatively “Phenomena that do not produce observable changes are not real.” I don’t know what Mr. Shook meant by theoretically confirmed, which seems to me to either insist that science must be predestinarian? Or that science must be Platonic realist? Also, behavioral changes are observable, so I have no idea why social science is excluded.

    Proposition O excludes the possibility of social science, but I think proposition O is dead wrong. In fact, proposition O strikes me as the best alternative definition of scientism. Except that theologians and philosophers are the main proponents. And to be honest, it’s seems too easy to label a repudiation of the possibilty of a science :scientism,” You can lose yourself in word games, imagine you’re winning when you’re just confusing.

    “First off, I made it clear that I do think there are areas of human experience where science will not have much bearing, or where a scientistic approach is actually dangerous (see eugenics). Second, even if we limited criticism to excessive belief I don’t see how this would turn scientism into a red herring, unless you think there is no problem with excessive (i.e., unsubstantiated) belief in anything.”

    As I look about, the most common example of people ignoring the practical limits of science and placing an excessive believe in the power of science is evolutionary psychology. I suppose transhumanists would count if I actually knew who they were, as I tend to assume SF writers are playing with ideas. As I try to reconsider possible error on my part, I realize that I’ve unconsciously omitted what I consider to be simple fraud by people consciously lying about scientific claims for self-interested reasons. As to the first point, the goal of science is to discover and correct knowledge of the world. What it may discover about the origins of experience may feel like it diminishes you individually or disenchants the world. Not to be flip personally, but, how do these consequence require claiming there are principled limits to what science may discover?

    “A bait and switch, and a misreading of what I wrote. I did say that empirical information is valuable to ethics, it just doesn’t determine values. And, of course, empirical is not at all the same as scientific.”

    I would apologize if I understood what bait I offered, and what I switched into its place. But I will apologize for using the tricky words “empirical determination” carelessly. Let me try to rephrase?
    “The scientific analysis of what real individuals value, not just verbally, but behaviorally, in different cultures is a necessary foundation for sound reasoning in ethics, since one must know your goals to reason effectively in how to reach them.” On the other hand, it is theology and philosophy that wants to determine what’s “good” and “bad” and such like, Frankly I think they’ve failed because it is fundamentally irrational to start with an “ought” rather than an “is.” And of course, empirical and scientific overlap, and are usually distinguished by…well, as you point out there’s no contradiction.

    “It is bizarre to accuse me of privileging theological speculation.” From my perspective, I don’t understand how the justification of philosophical speculations doesn’t also justify theological speculations. I may be wrong, but the intimate relations that have occurred between theology and philosophy at least show I’m not being bizarre. I did not mean this as a personal attack, it just seemed to be an inescapable consequence of your position.

    ” And the very point of criticism of scientism is not to unduly privilege any approach to understanding, including the scientific one.” To me it seems very much like a creationist trying to divert from the lack of evidence by pointing out imperfections in the scientific account. Theology and philosophy and personal authority have not succeeded (in my opinion) in justifying the values they’ve advocated. I’m afraid I really do think that the scientific approach, where we do not accept values as given, but try to discover them, is the necessary beginning. So I don’t think it it is unreasonable to wonder if raging against scientism doesn’t derail the argument, to leave the time honored default, one’s own favorite theological or philosophical speculation or personal taste. I’m not quite sure what to say about the appearance of “understanding” in this context. That wasn’t what I was talking about.

    “Some of these are true, but they are simply a part of naturalism.” Are they really? I’m sorry but as near as I can make out, naturalism is, self-evidently, something different from philosophical materialism or scientific materialism. Otherwise, why have a different word for it. The propositions I mentioned do not seem to me to be an uncontentious part of “naturalism” And they really do seem to be propositions included as targets of attacks against “scientism.”

    ” As for introspection, intuition and logical analysis having never attained knowledge, that is simply false.” I’m sorry I was inadvertently relying on my notion that justifying propositions against experience is an essential part of science. You’re quite right, it should have been “Introspection, intuition and logical analysis alone have never justified a proposition about reality.”

    “Really? So all the billions of dollars going annually into medical or defense research are meant to satisfy curiosity and nothing else?” Again, science and technology are conceptually distinct, but not practically. The ways scientists sell their research as worthwhile and what they’re really doing with it, are also conceptually distinct. I believe it is pretty much incontestable that very little of the basic research funded in medical research leads to practical results in the way that the people who fund it wish.

  18. Coel,

    “Steve Gould advocated naturalism and a scientific worldview, but also advocated NOMA, which is the opposite of scientism”

    While I agree, of course, that naturalism is distinct from scientism (the latter implies the first, but not vice versa), I’m not sure what it means to say that NOMA (to which I don’t subscribe) is “the opposite” of scientism. Though it is certainly incompatible with it.

    “Perhaps ‘empiricism’ is a better term than scientism”

    Actually, a better word would be positivism.

    “I’ll still try to reclaim the word!”

    Why? I would understand defending particular statements that some may or may not think are scientistic. But defending or reclaiming scientism itself amounts to claiming that science has no limits of any sort, ever. Does that sound reasonable?

    “First, eugenics isn’t really “flawed” science, it works and works well and we use it all the time in farming.”

    You do have a (partial) point, and in fact I’m planning on writing an essay on eugenics that includes it. Yes, the basic science is sound, but eugenicists did apply it naively to complex human behavioral traits, many of which are more plastic and/or less subject to genetic influences than, say, the amount of milk produced by a cow.

    “Second, it wasn’t done ‘without the guidance of ethics’, it was done with a strong ethical motivation”

    Again, partially correct. I guess I meant without right moral guidance. Which is one of the problematic things about scientism. And incidentally, would that moral guidance come from empirical information about whether it is or it is not right to castrate or kill people because they have traits we don’t like?

    “The knowledge that science gives is just a tool, and we use that tool”

    Forgive me, but this notion of a value-free science is outdated and a bit naive.

    “science in itself never provides motivations, and the motivations”

    Which, in Humean fashion, means that it doesn’t provide us with values. Which means that there are important things to be decided without science after all.

    Thomas,

    “For example, in statement B, I was wary of what seemed an equivalence or implied causality in the phrase ‘reliable and valuable.’”

    Well, that was of course John’s phrasing, but I took it to mean *both* more reliable and (perhaps consequently?) more valuable.

    Paul,

    “What I meant was that there is no theoretical reason why a neuroscientist couldn’t figure out what it is about your Shakespeare experience that you like and replicate it or even enhance it through AI”

    Possibly. That, however, would fall more under the heading of manipulation than poetry, in my mind.

    “All I’m saying really is that your subjective experience of anything has a physical basis that can be studied”

    I don’t think I ever implied otherwise. But to take a more obvious example, the neuroscientist who is trying to figure out how my brain is capable of enjoying Shakespeare is doing a very different thing from actually enjoying Shakespeare. The latter is a personal experience for which science is pretty much irrelevant.

    “Internet companies don’t keep track of you because they like you: they’re studying you to figure out how to get you to buy things”

    Which is why I consider that sort of thing not just irrelevant to my enjoyment of X or Y, but a positively pernicious interference with my life and willful manipulation of it for commercial purposes that I oppose, or at the least do not share.

    imzasirf,

    “I’m curious about your opinion on what naturalism implies, if anything, beyond not believing in the supernatural? It seems to me that there could be a large number of views that could be naturalism.”

    There are indeed a variety of naturalism, some of which, for instance, accept some sort of non-physical realities (e.g., mathematical objects) while others don’t. In philosophy, think of James Ladyman and Don Ross (varied ontology) vs WVO Quine (“desert” ontology). Naturalism, therefore, is not just defined by the rejection of supernaturalism, but that is indeed a major component of it. Like most philosophies, it arose within a historical context, in this case the medieval and early modern prevalence of supernaturalism.

    Robin,

    “Put like that it doesn’t really mean anything. For example I could say that Shrdluism is the philosophical position that all there is is the shrdlu world, ie no transcendence, supershrdlusim etc.”

    See my response above to imzasirf. And also this article in SEP: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/. Also, what Thomas said in his comment on metaphysical vs methodological naturalism.

    Jon,

    “Wouldn’t the only difference, between what one might call ‘scientiaism’, and scientism, be that logic, mathematics and philosophy can be included within scientia, but are fundamentally independent of science?”

    Obviously, I prefer the broader term “scientia” to the narrower one “science.” But even scientia doesn’t encompass all human experiences and ways of understanding. The arts, for instance, are noticeably absent. So there are areas where even a scientia-heavy approach would seem to me inappropriate or missing the point.

    “the charge of scientism is leveled at scientists all the time, but is it really reasonable to think that these scientists are adamant that mathematics or logic not be independent from science?”

    Some of those scientists don’t seem to have thought very carefully about the whole shebang. Witness, for instance, Krauss’ insistence that mathematics is empirical. (Yes, yes, our initial interest in and capacity to do math has empirical roots; yes, yes, of course math is relevant to science. But neither point establishes that math *is* a science, or that it is fundamentally empirical in nature.)

    Jake,

    “is the idea of the brain as a receiver for some signal coming from whatever dimension or unobservable place a supernatural belief? Second, is the idea that god guides evolution by curating mutations a supernatural belief? Can these beliefs be countenanced by naturalism?”

    The first one is at the very least mystical, if not downright supernatural. The second is clearly supernatural. Naturalism rejects both as untenable given the general untenability of supernaturalist worldviews.

    Aldo,

    “Darwin knew that too early publication of his theory would have led to a pointless discussion about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ based on insufficient evidence”

    As you know, regardless of Darwin’s wisdom, that discussion happened anyway. Still going on.

    “What we rather need is closure – the tentative precondition for the next round of trial and error.”

    I’m with you in spirit, but sometimes people are just wrong, and someone needs to tell them… ;-)

    DM,

    “My own definition is that naturalism is the view that all physical events can be explained with reference to physical laws expressible mathematically.”

    Hmm, I suspect that particular definition is a bit too strict and laden with metaphysically suspicious talk, such as that of natural law and of mathematical requirements. I agree with your definition of supernaturalism, though.

    Steven,

    “Bacon was not a scientist, but a lawyer whose amateur philosophy makes him probably the most notorious scientistic thinker.”

    Well, there was no such thing as a scientist at that time. But I certainly wouldn’t call Bacon’s philosophy amateurish.

    “I don’t understand why goals are not listed.”

    Sure, goals included as well. Didn’t mean to provide an exhaustive list.

    “The point about the bridges of Koenigsberg is simply that mathematics and “science” both study the dully empirical, hence are not independent.”

    Then the point is mistaken. The Koenigsberg problem is insoluble for mathematical reasons, regardless of what the empirical universe looked like. So it isn’t a conclusion based on empiricism.

    “Mathematics is naturally effective in science because it abstracts and generalizes from experience.”

    Not really. Lots of mathematics has nothing whatsoever to do with experience.

    “you cannot demonstrate the Pythagorean theorem on a sphere.”

    Irrelevant, given that the theorem applies to Euclidean, not spherical geometry.

    “There is no Platonic realm where the Pythagorean theorem is eternally true, prior to experience.”

    That is actually highly debated. And many mathematicians would disagree with you.

    “I thought it was the province of theology, philosophy and law (during Prohibition,) to dispense approval or disapproval.”

    Well, there is also aesthetics, no?

    “About the only thing science has had to say on the taste for dirty martinis relates to the medical hypothesis of alcoholism.”

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

    “I would phrase this as ‘Real phenomena are observable by multiple observers.’ Observable includes all the various methods of scientific investigation available.”

    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.

    “behavioral changes are observable, so I have no idea why social science is excluded.”

    I don’t think I did, nor do I think John meant to, reading him charitably.

    “Proposition O excludes the possibility of social science, but I think proposition O is dead wrong.”

    I think many of those propositions are wrong, and so does John. That’s the point of the exercise. However, again, I don’t exclude social from natural science.

    “how do these consequence require claiming there are principled limits to what science may discover?”

    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.

    Sorry, run out of time after that, have to catch a flight.

    • Hi Massimo,

      Naturalism, therefore, is not just defined by the rejection of supernaturalism

      That doesn’t follow, and so I disagree. Theism is defined as the belief in God, and the fact that there are different varieties of belief in God doesn’t change this. Materialism and mathematical Platonism are both compatible with naturalism, but naturalism itself is simply a rejection of the supernatural.

      But that leaves us with defining natural or supernatural in non-circular terms, which brings me again to my attempt.

      Hmm, I suspect that particular definition is a bit too strict and laden with metaphysically suspicious talk, such as that of natural law and of mathematical requirements. I agree with your definition of supernaturalism, though.

      What’s metaphysically suspicious about natural law? I would expect all naturalists to agree that nature behaves lawfully, even though the laws we know may only be approximations to the truth.

      Don’t read too much into my talk of mathematics. This only means that laws have to be precise and unambiguous (as I view mathematics as the study of precise concepts). “God is love” or “the soul survives death” cannot count as laws of nature because they refer to concepts which are not mathematically precise.

      I think this is simply the opposite of my definition of the supernatural, which you accept.

      • Do you actually believe that nature obeys laws that actually exist or rather the laws are our way of describing the world? It seems to me it’s very metaphysically suspicious to give these laws ontological status.

      • Hi imzasirf,

        I think that nature behaves lawfully, meaning that nature’s behaviour at a fundamental level can be accurately described by mathematics.

        I don’t much care if you prefer to say those laws actually exist or that they are our way of describing nature. As far as I’m concerned, those are just two different ways of looking at it and there is no difference of consequence.

        (Although as a mathematical Platonist I would prefer to say those laws (like all mathematical objects) do in fact exist. That is beside the point, however, and naturalism according to my definition need not commit one to Platonism.)

      • So how about “Everything that there is behaves according to mathematical regularity“?

      • Robin Herbert wrote: So how about “Everything that there is behaves according to mathematical regularity“?

        I might endorse that view, but it goes beyond naturalism, which is only concerned with physical events. As you have pointed out, qualia seem not to fit into this definition.

      • DM,
        I guess I have a very different view of science and natural laws as I see these laws and math as simply a tool (very precise tools) which humans use to better interact with the world rather than discover some inherent actual mathematical structure to the Universe. Granted, this is not a view that everyone holds but I think that is why those type of metaphysical claims would need to be defended rather than assumed, especially when defining something as broad as naturalism.

      • 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.

    • 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.

  19. Massimo:

    Why can’t mathematics be a science? As I argued in Rationally Speaking, Mathematics is a description ans study of relationships between physical objects, and uses it’s own symbology and language. These relationships are so consistent that Mathematics can work without having to look at the physical world, but the relationships are still a thing of the physical world.

    As for your taste for martinis, I’d gather a lot of people that like martinis and check if there is a discernible pattern (genetic, educational, and the interaction). In principle we can do science about it. Your personal explanation for your liking of martinis might be sincere, but potentially biased.

  20. See my response above to imzasirf. And also this article in SEP: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/. Also, what Thomas said in his comment on metaphysical vs methodological naturalism.

    None of this leaves me any the wiser as to what Naturalism might mean.

    The SEP essay reminds me of an essay I wrote some decades ago saying that word processors would be a valuable tool in philosophy because we could transform an essay about Materialism in to an essay about Idealism but using a search and replace routine on a handful of key terms.

    This trick works pretty well on the SEP essay. First I tried replacing “natural” with “shrdlu” and seeing if the meaning of “shrdlu” could be gleaned from the resulting work. Not really.

    Second I tried swapping “natural” with “mental”, then replacing the resulting terms “Mentalism”, “Mentalist” with “Idealism” and “Idealist”. Finally replacing “physical” with “mental”.

    The resulting article made just about as much sense as the original.

    I particularly liked the resulting:

    This led to the widespread acceptance of the doctrine now known as the ‘causal closure’ or the ‘causal completeness’ of the mental realm, according to which all mental effects can be accounted for by basic mental causes (where ‘mental’ can be understood as referring to some list of fundamental forces)

    Where their vague, non-committal definition of “physical” (“some list of fundamental forces”) works just as well for “mental”.

    Or this one:

    By the middle of the twentieth century, the acceptance of the casual closure of the mental realm led to even stronger Idealist views. The causal closure thesis implies that any natural and biological causes must themselves be mentally constituted, if they are to produce mental effects. It thus gives rise to a particularly strong form of ontological Idealism, namely the mentalist doctrine that any state that has mental effects must itself be mental.

    In general I have noticed that in philosophy that there are furious arguments in favour of or against Naturalism without giving any care to define terms like “natural”, “physical” and “mental” but to rely instead on the intuitive associations that we have for these words.

    • Robin,
      Just to say that I agree with you. “Naturalism” is not well defined, largely because “supernatural” is an ill-defined folk-concept, and “supernatural” is not well defined largely because (as far as we can tell) it doesn’t exist. Thus both “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” are ill-defined concepts, even though they are often trotted out.

      • Russell Blackford posted an interesting comment on this very thing some time ago.
        metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/natural-and-supernatural-again.html

        Definitions are important.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  21. The complement of science is ideology. For example, science appears to run out of methods when it comes making political/moral choices. That is when ideology takes over.

  22. Disagreeable Me wrote: “My own definition is that naturalism is the view that all physical events can be explained with reference to physical laws expressible mathematically.”

    OK, so I am feeling a little nauseous tonight. We could theoretically describe all of those events that contributed to and brought about that feeling.

    But would they explain how it felt?

    Would the mathematics or the events themselves explain why it felt that particular way for those things to happen?

    Consider a completely different type of universe, no space, time, no particles or distance. But there are intelligent beings who can perceive and understand but cannot feel. They cannot suffer or feel pleasure.

    Somehow they get a complete mathematical description of our universe and they are smart enough to understand all the maths. They understand why water behaves they way it does. They understand how evolution happens, they understand how stars work, they understand how trees grow.

    But none of that mathematics can tell them how it feels when I am nauseous. They would not even have need of the hypothesis that there is a “how it feels” because everything is explained in terms of the cause and effect of the physical entities.

    So conscious states, such as how it feels when I am nauseous, are events that cannot be explained in terms of physical laws expressible mathematically it seems, even in principle.

    • Hi Robin,

      No, I don’t think it would explain how nausea feels, but recall my definition of naturalism.

      all physical events can be explained with reference to physical laws expressible mathematically

      I don’t think that qualia such as nausea are physical events. The neural correlates of nausea, the motion of your fingers as you type descriptions of your nausea, these are physical events. Not sensations, which are only subjectively real and in principle imperceptible to any observer other than the subject.

      So I agree wholeheartedly with your statement:

      So conscious states, such as how it feels when I am nauseous, are events that cannot be explained in terms of physical laws expressible mathematically it seems, even in principle.

      I just don’t see this as an argument against naturalism, because on my definition naturalism is concerned only with physical events.

      I’m sure there are plenty of naturalists who would not agree with us on the ability of naturalism to explain qualia, however. These people probably regard qualia as physical events (e.g. the recent contributor to Scientia Salon with an essay on how consciousness is physical).

      My own take would be more like Dennett’s, who denies that talk of qualia is even meaningful.

      • These people probably regard qualia as physical events …

        Yes. Or, rather, as patterns of material.

      • 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.

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

      • 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.

    • But there are intelligent beings who can perceive and understand but cannot feel. They cannot suffer or feel pleasure.

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

      Somehow they get a complete mathematical description of our universe and they are smart enough to understand all the maths. … But none of that mathematics can tell them how it feels when I am nauseous.

      How do you know that? This “complete understanding … but no understanding” sort of scenario seems to me to build its conclusions in to the premises. It’s similar to Searle’s Chinese Room scenario where it is asserted that “the system” both understands everything and lacks understanding.

      • 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.

        • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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?

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

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

      • 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.

  23. Dear Massimo,

    I would understand defending particular statements that some may or may not think are scientistic. But defending or reclaiming scientism itself amounts to claiming that science has no limits of any sort, ever. Does that sound reasonable?

    That assumes the “excessive belief …”, defined-as-wrong meaning of “scientism”. As I see it the word has been used in multiple ways, not only that way. But in the end whether one calls a view “scientism”, or “empiricism” or “positivism” or whatever is only semantics, and all of those words have baggage attached to them.

    And incidentally, would that moral guidance come from empirical information about whether it is or it is not right to castrate or kill people because they have traits we don’t like?

    I don’t think that there can ever be “empirical information” or indeed any other sort of information that tells us “whether it is or it is not right” to do those things. All there can be is information on whether people judge those things right or not. (In other words I reject moral realism as non-sensical.)

    Forgive me, but this notion of a value-free science is outdated and a bit naive.

    I’d argue that the science itself is indeed value-free. It is humans and human actions that can never be value-free, and thus either *doing* science or *using* science can never be value-free, but the science itself can.

    Which, in Humean fashion, means that [science] doesn’t provide us with values.

    Agreed.

    Which means that there are important things to be decided without science after all.

    As I see it, “science” is about attaining knowledge, and I would assert that broadly-conceived science is the only way for humans to attain reliable knowledge (which I guess is scientism or empiricism or positivism or whatever term is appropriate).

    But of course there are vast ranges of human activities that are not primarily about attaining knowledge. Your example of enjoying Shakespeare is one; watching a sunset, walking the dog, enjoying a dinner, and playing football with the kids are other examples. It would of course be entirely nonsensical to regard any of these as “science” (though I doubt if anyone has ever suggested “scientism” in that sense).

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

    • 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.

      • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  24. Regarding this side discussion of naturalism vis a vis the scientific viewpoint and some underlying assumptions, I found W. Daniel Hillis’s discussion of “cause and effect” to be provocative (http://edge.org/responses/what-scientific-idea-is-ready-for-retirement). He contends that it’s time to retire our notion of cause and effect. Consider his comments in light of the discussion of causal closure in the SEP article on philosophic naturalism. An excerpt from his contention:

    “Unfortunately, the cause-and-effect paradigm does not just fail at the quantum scale. It also falls apart when we try to use causation to explain complex dynamical systems like the biochemical pathways of a living organism, the transactions of an economy, or the operation of the human mind. These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not “cause” the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up “because” the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling. We will come to appreciate that causes and effects do not exist in nature, that they are just convenient creations of our own minds.”

    But more relevant to the subject of this post are Ian Bogost’s comments on scientism (actually and radically he wants to “retire” the word “science”):

    “Both of these tendencies could rightly be accused of scientism, the view that empirical science entails the most complete, authoritative, and valid approach to answering questions about the world. Scientism isn’t a newly erroneous notion, but its an increasingly popular one. Recently, Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy ‘dead’ because it hasn’t kept up with advances in physics. Scientism assumes that the only productive way to understand the universe is through the pursuit of science, and that all other activities are lesser at best, pointless at worst.

    “And to be sure, the rhetoric of science has arisen partly as thanks to scientism. ‘Science of X’ books and research findings traceable to an origin in apparently scientific experimentation increasingly take the place of philosophical, interpretive, and reflective accounts of the meaning and importance of activities of all kinds. Instead of pondering the social practices of sparkling wine and its pleasures, we ponder what the size of its bubbles indicates about its quality, or why that effervescence lasts longer in a modern, fluted glass as opposed to a wider champagne coupe.

    “But the rhetoric of science doesn’t just risk the descent into scientism. It also gives science sole credit for something that it doesn’t deserve: an attention to the construction and operation of things. Most of the ‘science of X’ books look at the material form of their subject, be it neurochemical, computational, or economic. But the practice of attending to the material realities of a subject has no necessary relationship to science at all.”

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  25. I have been looking forward to Massimo’s reply to Shook’s post about scientism and he does not disappoint. The discussion that followed was lively and stimulating. Now I am going to spoil the party and drag in the ‘God’ word. I am doing this because I am confronted with a dilemma and that is quite simply, as a thorough-going theist, I feel logically compelled to support the scientism thesis. This makes me very uncomfortable but even so, I see no logical alternative. I am sure all you committed naturalists/*ists are astonished by my position.

    Let me explain. If a creator God exists(just for the sake of argument) it follows that he created the laws of nature. Furthermore, if he created a closed universe (which certainly seems to be the case, the closed part, that is), then everything within the closed universe should be explainable by the laws of nature as they act within that closed universe. This follows from the belief that God is all knowing, all powerful, completely rational and fully consistent. Everything within that universe then must be fully controlled by the laws of nature and therefore explainable by the laws of nature. Believing otherwise would require an irrational and inconsistent God, which we certainly don’t believe. If everything within the universe must of necessity be explainable by the laws of nature(what other explanation could there possibly be?) then surely science can explain all observable phenomena. That is if you grant that science is the process of discovering the laws of nature then it seems to me that there cannot be any possible part of existence within the universe that cannot be, in principle, explained by science. Underlying this belief is another assumption, that the laws of nature are a single, rational, coherent whole that operate everywhere in the same way all the time. This assumption follows naturally from the belief in a rational, consistent God that is ultimately simple.

    This, in a highly summarized nutshell, is why I, as a theist in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, believe that all within the universe is ultimately explainable by science and therefore that scientism must be correct.

    In reply you may argue that some laws of nature cannot, in principle, be investigated by science. Can the microscope observe itself? But then you need to justify that belief. What laws of nature cannot, in principle, be investigated by science and why? Surely today’s inability only reflects the immaturity of today’s science. What is often called the failure of imagination. All the arguments I have seen so far fall under that heading.

    Alternatively, as a non-theist, you may argue that the laws of nature do not form a single coherent, rational whole, that this belief is an artefact inherited from the theist A-T tradition. In that case you can imagine disconnected subsets of the laws of nature that defy our rationality and cannot ever be understood or investigated. Once again you need to justify that belief.

    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. Large parts of it have been amenable to explanation. From this springs the belief that all must must be explainable. This has been an extraordinarily powerful assumption. We have every reason to believe this assumption is true and no reason to doubt it. As a theist I believe this assumption is necessarily true, that it follows from the nature of God.

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

    • 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.

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

  26. 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.

    • 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).

    • 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

    • “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…”
      http://themindi.blogspot.com.au/2007/02/chapter-19-non-serviam.html

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • Coel,
        Nice allegory” Thanks.
        what you want those ants to conclude is that their world was designed and set up by a Scientist
        No.
        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?

        • 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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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