Scientism: ‘Yippee’ or ‘Boo-sucks’? — Part II

braincogs123_zpsda563d84[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of Scientia Salon’s special “scientism week” and could profitably be read alongside other entries on the same topic on this site, such as this one by John Shook and this one by yours truly. My take on the issue is very different from that of the authors who contributed to this special series, and indeed close to that of Putnam and Popper — as it should be clear from a recent presentation I did at a workshop on scientism I organized. Also, contra the author of the third essay in this series (but, interestingly, not the author of the first two!) I think the notion that mathematics is a part of science is fundamentally indefensible. Then again, part of the point of the SciSal project is to offer a forum for a variety of thoughtful perspectives, not just to serve as an echo chamber for my own opinions…]

by Robert Nola

Hayek, Popper and Methodological Scientism

Another Dictionary definition we have seen (B3 in the previous essay) suggests that a kind of scientism arises when the methods of the natural sciences are inappropriately extended to other sciences (especially the social sciences). A broader view of B3 can be taken if it is understood to concern methods developed in one area which are then extended to other areas (or domains). This is the already mentioned ‘methodological scientism.’ Its content is specified by the methods actually extended from one area to another; such extensions may be legitimate and so applauded by their advocates or deemed illegitimate and so condemned by their detractors as scientistic. Such a broad view of B3 is taken by Putnam when he considers the extension of many kinds of formal studies found in logic and semantics to other areas of philosophy. For Putnam this is another kind of scientism: “… as long as we are too much in the grip of formalization we can expect this kind of swinging back and forth between the two kinds of scientism I described [viz., positivism and relativism]” [14].

Now some do deplore the extent to which formal methods have invaded philosophy while others welcome what clarity and understanding they can provide. Some of the heat generated by such extensions can be dissipated if it is viewed as part of the development of a logical and semantic research program (in the sense of Lakatos [15]) which can be applied to many areas of philosophy. Viewed in this way we can discover the program’s successes in its progressive phase and its failures in it degenerative phase. But in making assessments of such a research program we need to have agreed criteria for assessing progress and degeneration in a rational way. Calling the application of formal methods ‘scientistic’ is, at best, merely an expression of an attitude and not a contribution to the research program itself (though in some ways the critic Putnam himself has been an able contributor to aspects of such research programs in philosophy!). But for Putnam this is important because what he thinks is at stake concerning scientism in this area “are attempts to evade the issue of giving a sane and human description of the scope of human reason” [16].

A quite different form of methodological scientism is alleged by Hayek and Popper to infect the human and social sciences. Hayek agrees that there are such things “as the methods of Science in their proper sphere.” But he does not say much about what these methods are though extensions beyond their “proper sphere” are illustrated shortly. This leads to his contrast between science and scientism: “we shall, whenever we are concerned, not with the general spirit of disinterested inquiry but with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of scientism or the scientistic prejudice” [17].

Hayek locates at least three slavish imitations of the methods of natural science in the social and human sciences. One such imitation can be found in the sort of objectivism underlying behavioristic and physicalist approaches in psychology which eschew all mental phenomena. Another lies in the methodological collectivism which supposes that social wholes exist and obey sui generis laws that social scientists can discover. And a third manifests itself in a historicism which supposes that these laws govern the stages of development of the “wholes,” and thus a scientific history is feasible in which the prediction of future “wholes” becomes possible [18]. The issues raised by these kinds of scientism have been debated extensively in the literature; the task here is not to continue the debate but to flesh out the implicit science-scientism contrast.

Hayek’s attack on historicism resonated with Popper who also made a similar attack at about the same time. In a footnote to later editions of The Open Society and its Enemies Popper says: “If by ‘scientism’ we mean the tendency to ape, in the field of social science, what are supposed to be the methods of the natural sciences, then historicism can be described as a form of scientism” [19]. Popper says ‘supposed’ because he thinks that the methods employed in the natural sciences have been systematically misunderstood by the practitioners and advocates of these sciences themselves and, subsequently, by those who would adopt them in the social sciences. It is part of his substantive account of scientific method to correct this misunderstanding. Popper continues after the above quotation: “But if by ‘scientism’ we should mean the view that the methods of the social sciences are, to a very considerable extent, the same as those of the natural sciences, then I should be obliged to plead ‘guilty’ to being an adherent to ‘scientism.’” So Popper endorses methodological scientism in a descriptive sense; a good many of the methods of the natural sciences can be extended to the social sciences while some cannot. This leads to a research program of working out what are the legitimate and illegitimate extensions of the methods developed in the natural sciences to the social sciences. And back the other way, viz., whether there are methods of the social sciences which can be extended to the natural sciences. (Popper’s encounter with some philosophers of social science, e.g., Adorno, shows that he thinks there are none since there is a methodological unity to all sciences [20].).

Popper’s point that there is a widespread misunderstanding of what are the methods of natural science is taken up in the ‘Preface’ Hayek wrote to a 1967 collection of papers which he dedicated to Popper:

Readers of some of my earlier writings may notice a slight change in the tone of my discussion of the attitude which I then called ‘scientism.’ The reason for this is that Sir Karl Popper has taught me that natural scientists did not really do what most of them not only told us that they did but also urged the representatives of other disciplines to imitate. The difference between the two groups of disciplines has thereby been greatly narrowed and I keep up the argument only because so many social scientists are still trying to imitate what they wrongly believe to be the methods of the natural sciences. The intellectual debt which I owe to this old friend from having taught me this is but one of many [21].

We can conclude from the above that, according to Hayek, his and Popper’s views converge in two ways over the science/scientism distinction, viz., what are the correct methods of science (when they are not misunderstood) and where some methods might be illegitimately applied in some areas. This is illustrative of how some have understood methodological scientism, along with a story about how different dividing lines might be drawn between science and an alleged scientism (in the methodological sense). However, more recent accounts might give a different story about what the methods of science are and draw a different dividing line concerning their application in different sciences (if one is to be drawn at all) [22]. The position adopted by Hayek and Popper provides a novel re-run of aspects of the old NaturwissenschaftenGeisteswissenschaften debate in which advocates of the latter proposed special methods of their own and resisted attempts by advocates of the former to introduce models and concepts of the natural sciences into psychology and social sciences [23].

Science, Scientism, Ways of Knowing and Epistemic Scientism

The dictionary definition (B1a from the previous essay) expresses the epistemic thesis that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge. Some might take a pro-attitude (e.g., Rosenberg) to this while others adopt an anti-attitude (Putnam) calling it ‘scientistic.’  Quine is a little more careful when he says that the methods of science are an extension of those of common sense. Our more sophisticated scientific methods go well beyond those of common sense; but in adding to them they do not undermine them, though they might refine them. Let us adopt the more liberal Quinean view about the methods of science in which much of our everyday knowledge and the methods whereby it is acquired pass muster along with our more sophisticated science and its methods [24].

Opponents of the imperialism of science say that science is not the only way of obtaining knowledge — there are others just as good or better. Let us abbreviate ‘ways of obtaining knowledge’ as ‘WoK’; and allow that the scientific way of getting knowledge [25] is included in WoK along with other ways. Here are three claims that can be made in this area of which the first two could be dubbed ‘scientistic’:

  1. In every domain, science is the only way of obtaining knowledge; there are no serious competitors as they fall short in various respects.
  2. In each domain there is an associated WoK (which includes science); but there is nothing superior about science — all members of WoK are on a par (relativism).
  3. There is at least one domain with its associated WoK such that at least one member of WoK is superior to science.

Which of these claims is correct? And what are the methods that rival science?

Here is a list of rivals to science within WoK (the list can be extended): intuiting; looking to one’s cultural tradition; guessing; hoping; wishing; throwing a die or tossing a coin; praying; consulting a guru; having a séance; looking up an ancient religious text which is regarded as authoritative; having out-of-body or near-death experiences; and the like. In addition, sociologists of knowledge would like to put emphasis on the social conditions which cause belief playing down the role of evidence supposed in science. The definition B1(b) mentions beliefs (or knowledge) arising from religion; the scientistic would reject these since they are amongst the cases ruled out by B1(a), viz., the epistemic scientism they endorse.

While there may be no such thing as the scientific method, there are a number of distinctive methods characteristic of the sciences when it comes to hypothesis testing, such as: clinical trials; the hypothetico-deductive method; various inductive methods; the rival methods of Popper and/or Lakatos; varieties of Bayesianism; Kuhn’s theory of weighted values; and the like [26]. What makes these methods superior to those rivals also listed in WoK? A quick answer (not argued for here) is their reliability in achieving their epistemic goals. Wishing, intuiting, hoping, etc are notoriously unreliable for whatever epistemic goal they might attempt to realize. The rivals to science in WoK need to improve their reliability if they are to count as even remotely acceptable as methods.

So where does this leave us concerning the epistemic scientism expressed in claims like (B1a)? It would appear that the only acceptable items in WoK are the methods of science themselves (understood broadly in Quine’s sense). There may be social, psychological or religious causes of belief; but these are causes only and provide no rational ground for belief of the sort provided by our best principles of scientific method.

Discussions of WoK are often bedeviled by the use of the word ‘knowledge’ in the abstract. But this is not helpful as there are a host of different contexts in which the word ‘know’ is used that require a more refined approach to issues concerning “ways of knowing.” Here are several: (1) ‘know how to …’ where the blank is to be filled by an expression denoting an ability or a capacity such as ‘play the violin,’ ‘speak Chinese,’ ‘integrate an equation,’ and the like. (2) Know … (by acquaintance) where the blank can be filled by expressions such as ‘the way home,’ ‘the Pope,’ and the like. (3) Cognitive knowledge of the form ‘knows that p’ (where p can be any proposition whatever). (4) Explanatory ‘know why …’ where the blank is to be filled by an expression referring to something that is to be explained (e.g., the heart pumps blood). (5) There is also the different explanatory context ‘know how …’ (e.g., the heart pumps blood). Knowing why and knowing how clearly call for different explanations. (6) ‘Know what … is’ where the blank can be filled by expressions such as ‘electrons,’ ‘differentiation’ (in mathematics), etc. And so on for other uses of ‘know.’

There is an important lesson here for how we are to understand WoK. One can well question whether epistemic thesis B1(a) applies in the case of knowing how to … Consider the case of, say, knowing how to play the violin. There may well be a trial and error method when one attempts to develop a certain bowing technique or find the right finger placements on the strings. People might be divided over whether such trial and error methods are scientific. But keep in mind Quine’s view that the methods of science, however sophisticated they become, are an extension of common sense methods including trial and error. Such trial and error is also at work when scientists try to get an experiment to come out right. Consider a different “object” of “knowing” in the case of knowing how to differentiate some equations of motion; this is something to which scientific training does apply.

Again, think of the question when one attempts to know why a Stradivarius violin has the particular tone it does and other violins do not. In order to find the right explanation, and thus acquire some knowledge why, much scientific knowledge of the knowing that p variety has to go into answering questions about the kind of wood used, the varnish, the construction, and the like. So science can have a role here. Finally consider knowing which of two performances of a work one prefers, or knowing which of two violin concertos one prefers (say, the Brahms versus the Tchaikovsky). Here it is not immediately evident that science has anything to say about the proximal causes of such particular preferences. But science could well have a distal role in spelling out how human cognitive evolution got us to respond to and appreciate music in the first place [27].

The trouble with WoK is that its various claims about knowledge are underspecified; once it is made clear what kinds of knowing are involved (which is not done in its various formulations above), then some of the tension about scientism can evaporate. The same can be said about the kind Descriptive Scientism (DS) I described in the previous essay.  Insofar as scientific theories and explanations are to be developed for each domain, then the kind of knowledge that science is meant to produce is mainly cognitive knowing that p and cognitive knowing why p. Though the shaping up of some skills in the case of knowing how to is important in science, knowing how to need not be an essential part of what (DS) claims. Some restrictions were proposed on how (DS) was to be considered; here is another restriction on the appropriate kind of “knowing” produced by science that is to be considered in understanding what (DS) says and how it is to be applied.

Literature, Criticism and Scientism

It might be thought that in evaluating (DS) literature and our response to it along with literary studies and criticism would be outside its scope and thus a counterexample to it. But if one makes clear what aspects of literature are being considered the case is much less clear cut. Here are just four of the many points that could be made about the common ground one can find between literature and science thereby removing some of the heat from the scientism debate and supporting the application of (DS) to some aspects of literature.

1. Determining a text and authorship. There is a time wasting enterprise which claims that the plays of Shakespeare were really authored by someone else (perhaps they were written by another person but with the same name!). Much more interesting is the claim that a number of well-known plays by Shakespeare, when closely investigated, show the hand of a collaborator; he did not write all of the play himself! Then again, plays attributed to some of his contemporaries show the hand of Shakespeare himself. Much of the research in the area of Shakespeare collaboration involves the painstaking noting of patterns of versification, the kind of vocabulary used, various verbal indicators, and the like and then applying the methods of statistics to determine whether there is one author of the play, or two or more collaborators at work. As a result of these investigations the amount of collaboration between Shakespeare and his contemporaries is quite surprising. So are the methods for determining Shakespearean authorship recognizable in science or are they quite different? Reading the works of some of these textual investigators shows that they are not doing anything very different from what can be found in science (in Quine’s sense of methods of science). So here is one domain, that of authorship, that falls happily within the scope of (DS) [28].

2. Interpretive hypotheses. In a fine but perhaps not well known article called “Hermeneutics and the Hypothetico-Deductive Method” [29], Dagfinn Føllesdal argues that the hermeneutic method, commonly supposed to underlie some aspects of literary interpretation, is nothing but the hypothetico-deductive method (HD) as used in science (it is also found in courtrooms and everyday life). Føllesdal illustrates his case by setting out five of the many interpretations literary critics have been given of the role of the Stranger who appears in the fifth act of Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. The Stranger is variously said to represent anxiety, death, Ibsen himself, the Devil and the ghost of Lord Byron. The task is then to consider just how well these various interpretations of the Stranger, and their consequences, fit the text of the play. Føllesdal does an excellent job of setting this out by investigating the text and other matters as any literary critic would. But the difference is that Føllesdal is aware of the methods of science whereas many other commentators are not. My own suggestion is that the interpretative method he describes is not so much the HD method (which at best deals with one hypothesis at a time) but rather a form of inference to the best explanation, which can deal with several rival hypotheses at once.

Føllesdal also does a good job of showing how various advocates of hermeneutics, such as Habermas, misunderstand what the HD method is. Here we have an example of the point made by Popper and endorsed by Hayek, that there is a systematic misunderstanding of what are the methods of natural science and how they might be carried over to other sciences and even literary studies. So there is much obscuring bush to be cleared away to get a proper understanding of how modes of inference can apply across a wide range of studies, including the humanities, without invoking alleged unique kinds of inference making applicable only to a special domain such as the humanities. It also removes much of the obscurity surrounding talk of “hermeneutics,”

3. Zola’s experimental novel. The 19th century French novelist Émile Zola was a strong advocate of a form of naturalism in both his novels and more theoretical writings [30]. Zola’s naturalism was strongly influenced by Claude Bernard’s Introduction à la médecine expérimentale (1865) the aim of which was to establish the scientific method in medicine. Similarly, Zola wished to establish something like the experimental method in his novels.

Towards the beginning of his The Experiemental Novel, Zola asks in a manner inspired by his reading of Bernal: “The first question which presents itself is this: Is experiment possible in literature, in which up to the present time observation alone has been employed” [31]. And at the end of chapter 2 he sums up his position, which is best expressed in his own words:

I have reached this point: the experimental novel is a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century; it continues and completes physiology, which itself leans for support on chemistry and medicine; it substitutes for the study of the abstract and the metaphysical man the study of the natural man, governed by physical and chemical laws and modified by the influence of his surroundings; it is in one word the literature of our scientific age, as the classical and romantic literature corresponded to a scholastic and theological age. Now I will pass to the great question of the application of all this, and its justification. [32]

The justification he seeks is the same as that of Bernal’s medical scientist who wishes to understand the human medical condition: “… this dream of the physiologist and the experimental doctor is also that of the novelist, who also employs the experimental method in his study of man as a simple individual and as a social animal. … We are, in a word, experimental moralists …” [33]

Novelists, critics and scholars have proposed many theories about the nature of novels. Zola’s theory of the novel, sketched above, is striking in that it comports closely to a way in which (DS) might be applied to the theory of novels as well as their writing. Though not all novelists and scholars will agree with Zola, he says many things about the kinds of observation novelists make of humans; and following Bernal, he emphasizes their propensity to experiment with “forms of life” in their novels. Much of this many novelists could endorse. Though more needs to be said than these brief comments, the application of (DS) to literature is a project that Zola would endorse. The charge of scientism would be descriptively correct but any pejorative connotations need not be accepted, especially by Zola.

4. Darwinian evolution and story-telling. Darwin’s theory of evolution has been applied not only to the evolution of our bodies (e.g., our possession of opposable thumbs or our ability to walk upright) but also to the evolution of our minds in which various cognitive mechanisms are claimed to have populated our brains in order to enhance our survival. We need not resolve the question as to whether these cognitive mechanisms are direct adaptions in the course of evolution or the by-product of other evolved psychological mechanisms; but they are certainly adaptive. Nearly all humans engage in some form of artistic endeavor (passively or actively), whether it be music, dancing, the visual arts or stories. What is proposed by some theoreticians of evolutionary psychology is that there are specific evolved cognitive mechanisms without which we would simply not engage in the arts. A particular thesis, advanced by Brian Boyd, is that art is a cognitive adaptation derived from play; in fact he defines art as “cognitive play with pattern” [34].

His particular target is story-telling (including the stories of religion) and a consideration of both the evolutionary processes that give rise to story-telling and its adaptive function in our daily lives. This tells us something of the distal causes of our engaging in the general activity of story-telling. But it also allows for the more proximal causes of story-telling through an account of how particular cases of story-telling fit into the overall theory. The cases Boyd considers are Homer’s Odyssey and writings by Dr. Seuss such as Horton hears a Who! How this occurs is a complex story that cannot be summarized here. But it is fairly clear that the application of Darwinian evolutionary psychology leads to the progressive scientization of the domain of story-telling; as such it serves to account for aspects of story-telling, thereby providing yet another positive instance on behalf of the naturalism implicit in (DS). In fact the four aspects of literature briefly set out here serve to show that there is a lot to be said for a partial extension of science into the domain of literature before condemning the extension as ‘scientistic.’


Robert Nola is a professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. His interests include philosophy of science, metaphysics, epistemology, selected areas in social and historical studies of science, atheism and the relationship between science and religion. With David Braddon-Mitchell he co-edited the volume Conceptual Analysis and Philosophical Naturalism (2008).

[14] Hilary Putnam (1983) “Why there isn’t a ready-made world,” Chapter 12 of Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers Volume 3 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 199.

[15] On Lakatos.

[16] Putnam, Loc. cit.

[17] Hayek (1942): 269. Or Hayek (1952): 15.

[18] For these varieties of scientism see Hayek (1943) “Scientism and the Study of Society. Part II,” Economica, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 37 (Feb., 1943): 34-63. Or Hayek (1952): 44-79.

[19] Karl Popper (1962), The Open Society and its Enemies: Volume 1 Plato (London Routledge and Kegan Paul, fourth edition) note 4* to chapter 9: 286.

[20] See the Popper-Adorno confrontation in David Frisby (1976) The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (London, Heineman); Popper’s paper “The Logic of the Social Sciences” is at pp. 87-104 with an addendum at pp. 288-300.

[21] Hayek, F. A. (1967) Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul): viii.

[22] Popper gives a different characterization of scientism when he says: “Despite my admiration for scientific knowledge, I am not an adherent of scientism. For scientism dogmatically asserts the authority of scientific knowledge; whereas I do not believe in any authority and have always resisted dogmatism.” Karl Popper (1994) In Search of a Better World (London, Routledge): 6. Popper’s anti-authoritarianism and anti-dogmatism provides a different version of epistemic scientism.

[23] For another account of scientism in historical and social sciences see the five points made by Kitcher (p. 21) and his critique of them which ends with the conclusion that “the five points of scientism rest on stereotypes” (p. 22). Philip Kitcher (2012) “The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge,” The New Republic, 24th May, 2012.

[24] “… science is itself a continuation of common sense. The scientist is indistinguishable from the common man in his sense of evidence, except that the scientist is more careful.” W. V. Quine, W. O (1976) “The scope and language of science,” in The Ways of Paradox and other Essays (Cambridge, Harvard University Press; revised edition): 233. Note that Quine allows for cognitive incompetence in our attempts to discover knowledge.

[25] Here I do not consider those who would drop out of the debate about ways of getting knowledge and say that scientific methods at best give us a (high-ish) rational degree of belief in our scientific claims.

[26] It should be noted that while there is considerable agreement over what are some of the methods of science, there are still areas of disagreement. The most widely (but not universally) accepted account of method emerges from Bayesianism (though there are disputes amongst Bayesians as to what form this should take). But none of this allows for the ascendency of rivals to science within WoK.

[27] There is a vast amount of research into how cognitive evolution helped produce human responses to art and religion. For a sampler see Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (London, Phoenix, 1988) or The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (London, Phoenix, 2006).

[28] On Shakespearean collaborations see: James Shapiro (2010) Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (London, Faber and Faber): 286-95. For related work on trying to determine a text of the New Testament, see: Bart Ehrman (2005), Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, Harper Collins).

[29] Dagfinn Føllesdal, “Hermeneutics and the Hypothetico-Deductive Method,” reprinted as chapter 15 of Michael Martin and Lee McIntyre (eds.) Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science (Cambridge, The MIT press, 1994); 233-45.

[30] See Le Roman expérimental (1880; The Experimental Novel) and Les Romanciers naturalistes (1881; The Naturalist Novelists).

[31] Émile Zola (1964) The Experimental Novel and Other Essays, translated by Belle Sherman (New York, Haskell House): chapter 1 p. 6.

[32] Op. cit., 23.

[33] Op. cit., 25.

[34] Brian Boyd (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction (Cambridge MA, Belnap, Harvard University Press): 15.


87 thoughts on “Scientism: ‘Yippee’ or ‘Boo-sucks’? — Part II

  1. Hi Massimo,

    The issue is whether science in general, or a particular science (say, physics, or biology) is enough for *human* understanding and description. I suggest that biology is insufficient as an explanation of aesthetics, because it doesn’t (and cannot) take into account psychological, sociological and even historical levels of explanation, which provide a much better picture of aesthetics.

    There are two questions there, whether “science in general” is enough and whether “a particular science” is enough. On the latter question, no, clearly it isn’t. If you only take one area of science then of course there will be plenty left out of it.

    The more interesting question is whether “science in general” — which would include psychological, sociological and even historical levels of explanation — would be enough. And, again, the real issue here is how we come to know things, and whether there are “ways of knowing” that are fundamentally epistemologically distinct from science.


  2. If you define science as including pretty much all reason-based approaches to human knowledge then the question isn’t interesting at all: of course it will be enough, by definition.


  3. Hi Coel,

    And that, for me, does not amount to an actual argument (sorry!). I am aware of people like Jerry Fodor, David Chalmers & Thomas Nagel making all sorts of arguments based mostly on their intuition, but plenty of people do not find them convincing, because intuition is really all they have, and that is insufficient.

    Let’s not confuse Fodor’s paper on the special sciences with Fodor on intentionality. I’m not sure I recall his position accurately, but my understanding is that Fodor’s position on mind is not incompatible with ours (and I’d probably agree with him on the special sciences too). I do agree with you that Chalmers’ argument is really just an expression of an intuition. Not sure about Nagle.


  4. If one were to do that one would mistake the structure (which is an abstract object) for a specific instantiation of that structure. So the example stands.


  5. Hi Massimo,

    “Coel, once more: this isn’t a question of “your intuitions are just as good as mine.””

    Are you sure?

    There has been a lot of argumentation, but that doesn’t mean that the disagreements are not rooted in some pretty basic intuitional differences. It seems to me the arguments serve merely to mask these. In the end, it boils down to a competing set of assertions. Your arguments make no sense to me and my arguments make no sense to you because they draw on latent premises that are entirely at odds.


  6. Yes, DM, I feel pretty confident on this, even though you disagree. No, our arguments don’t mask a mere disagreement about intuitions, they explain why there is a disagreement. I’m sorry my arguments make no sense to me, but may I remind you that your position is by far a minority one among the relevant epistemic community (that of philosophers of language and in general people who study semantics). That ought to give you and Coeal some pause, no?


  7. “All reason-based approaches” to human knowledge actually excludes quite a lot, including a-priori intuition, tea-leaf divining, sensus divinitatis, and so forth.


  8. No, it doesn’t. That’s why I used the qualifier “reason-based.” All those in the list do not count as reason-based, in my mind. Or are we now going to disagree on the meaning of “reason”?


  9. I think we’re actually agreeing here (for a rather rare change!), since our last two posts say the same thing.

    Again, the substantive issue is how many distinct “ways of knowing” there are and what they are.


  10. As a companion thesis to the theory that all thinking is science, I offer the following: All language is poetry.

    Let’s look at the scientific data (meaning my casual observations; recall that all observation is science):

    General language contains:
    1) metaphors
    2) synecdoche
    3) metonymy
    and has:
    4) rhythm
    5) rhyme
    6) sparkle and pizazz.

    Poetry has all these things too; thus, by science, all language is poetry. QED. I think we’re on the cusp of a new horizon of discovery! 😉


  11. Hi Massimo,

    That ought to give you and Coeal some pause, no?

    I think two questions are being conflated. The philosophy of mind is not the philosophy of language, so when we talk of syntax and semantics in each case we are applying the concepts to two different domains with slightly different meanings.

    Philosophy of mind syntax consists of the formal, mechanistic structures within a system which is ostensibly capable of thought (or information processing of some kind).
    Philosophy of language syntax consists of the symbols and syntactical rules of utterances in verbal communication.
    Philosophy of mind semantics consists of real intentionality, how symbolic representations in information processing systems or minds refer to objects in the world.
    Philosophy of language semantics consists of how the syntax of utterences convey meaning, being intended to represent objects in the world and being interpreted as representing objects in the world.

    So when the philosophers of language talk of syntax and semantics as two different things, they are quite right and the distinction is appropriate and helpful. But that doesn’t in itself give weight to the view that structural or formal representations cannot have intentionality.

    My view is that intentionality arises inevitably from formal structures where there is
    1) Some degree of structural isomorphism between representation and the represented
    2) Some causal connection between the representation and the represented, e.g. I see a car and my mental representation of a car (some pattern of neural firing, presumably) is activated.

    It seems to me that arguments from philosophy of language are largely inapplicable here, as animals have mental representations and intentionality but no language, save perhaps mentalese (which I think is quite unlike ordinary language if it can be considered a language at all).


  12. Coel,
    I am aware of people like Jerry Fodor, David Chalmers & Thomas Nagel making all sorts of arguments based mostly on their intuition

    You are ‘aware’ or you have carefully read their papers? What is the source of your awareness? 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th hand reports? I suggest that actually reading their papers will show a framework of careful reasoning and not just mere intuition.


  13. Well, yes, but this particular agreement is actually at the root of our disagreement: I insist that it is meaningless to equate all reason-based human thinking with science.


  14. DM, thanks for the reminder of the difference btw philosophy of mind and of language, though I’m pretty sure I was well aware of it. You are incorrect when you say that the terms semantics and syntax have different, ahem, meanings in the two fields. The meaning is the same, but the level of analysis is different. And when you re-define semantics in philosophy of language the way you do it is only because you have a strong a priori commitment to computationalism, so that it *has* to be the case that the semantics/syntax distinction collapses, otherwise computationalism is either wrong or incomplete (as you well know, I think the latter).


  15. labnut,

    Please note “arbitrarily high standards” and “high standards” don’t mean the same thing at all.

    There is nothing ambiguous at all about my final observation when taken in context with this: “What is more interesting is the extreme ideological devotion that scientism inspires.
    Now why should that be?” I was stating the opposite since you have it backwards. Who are the conventional? They are the people who can’t imagine any relationship between Mont Pelerin philosophy and Pinochet politics!

    Your gibberish about entropy and the Big Bang was a fine example of real scientism, a fake appeal to the scientific authority. There’s a certain irony about a discussion of scientism ignoring the real thing in its midst. In the wider society, the number one example of this real scientism is evolutionary psychology, which does not seem to be a concern for this blog.

    As for the supposed “extreme ideological devotion that scientism inspires?” Scientism includes such propositions as 1)science is the only way we’ve found so far to attain knowledge about the world 2) there are no known limits in principle to what science can study and 3)metaphysical materialism. In practice,* None of these are extreme propositions. (Extreme reductionism is not a part of scientism, which includes many emergentists, but of course the anti-science keep dragging it in.) Rather the reverse, it is the anti-science who are attacking their straw man “scientism” who are the extreme ideologists.

    Popper for example devised his schema for the scientific method, which heavily relied on predictivism. Then he used this false standard to condemn views he didn’t like! Whenever convenient of course Popper’s wrong ideas are blithely dismissed as “out of date.” But as we see above, they aren’t really, it’s may just be impolitic to cite him. Hayek? The basic idea of his claim to fame, The Road to Serfdom, was that the welfare state was a slippery slope to socialism, then communism which is the same as Nazism. What kind of a person takes a thinker like that seriously?

    The practical difficulties in scientific research means that there are numerous problems for which we do not expect any enlightenment from science for the foreseeable future. The hooraw about scientism is cover for the opposition to what we have found so far. For instance, science shows no evidence for gods, much less particular gods, therefore personal revelation and church authority can be ruled out as sources of knowledge about the world.** For another example, science shows that there is evidence that folk notions of free will must be questioned. If you are a reactionary, it is far better to omit discussion of cases and devise something called “scientism” so that you can dismiss a critique without a hearing.

    *Of course there are minor caveats 1)Direct experience provides a great deal of knowledge for everybody, but the only way of correcting the errors and limitations of direct experience has turned out to be science. 2)Mechanically applying the techniques found to work in one field has been found to an astonishingly effective way to waste time while making mistakes. 3)The proposition that matter is all that’s real does not mean that your intuition of matter is true. The discovery that things are not just what they seem to be should not be distressing, though. How would that be so different from the rest of life?

    **The humanities are wonderfully helpful for expressing feelings I think. I hesitate to be dogmatic, because in matters of art and such, when you get right down to the nitty gritty, I never quite know that I’ve correctly interpreted the feelings. My first thought on reading Cory’s “Heraclitus” was that it was ironic. As I said, what do I know? It’s best not to claim knowledge from the humanities..or to qualify what you mean by knowledge!


  16. PS Yes, Fermat’s conjecture was correct: There is no power with an integer exponent greater than two equal to the sum of two powers with the same exponent. There are two aspects overlooked I think.

    First, the conjecture was rapidly determined to be almost certainly true because the search for a counterexample failed. (By the way, the insistence that almost certainly true is effectively the same as certainly true so carelessly bandied about by antirealists should hold in this case too.) If a scientist trying to model a phenomenon, such as melting or a financial crisis, would have known long before P.J.D. Wiles was born that it wasn’t going to work. They certainly did not carry out any measurements that produced such a sum. You might say that nature carried out the experiment and the results were negative, to be a little provocative. The point is that just because it looks like abstractions that have nothing to do with reality doesn’t mean they might. Even if Fermat had not published the conjecture, no real phenomenon has been found that could be symbolized by this sum. If by some happenstance a physicist needed to use Riemann’s conjecture, they should. Stated more broadly, is it sensible to divorce pragmatic utility from any notion of justification?

    Second, there are different number systems (as opposed to numerals.) Is it proven there are no number systems in which Fermat’s conjecture is not true? If this hasn’t been proven, how can we know that Wiles’ is the last word? In other words, what does it mean to say we know the conjecture is correct when we have to specify the conditions under which it is true? (Which is by the way may be a practical impossibility, given the wonder ability of assumptions to hide!) Is it possible to use fractional exponents to write such a sum? Stated more broadly, what does it mean to say that there is mathematical truth when we can’t prove when it applies?


  17. Steven,
    There is nothing ambiguous at all about my final observation

    Then simply explain what you mean. Some clarification is called for. It should be simple enough.

    Your gibberish about entropy and the Big Bang was a fine example of real scientism, a fake appeal to the scientific authority.

    You are rather given to hyperbole. Please motivate(clearly) your statement rather than indulging in elaborate and hyperbolic hand waving.

    The first step in answering a person’s arguments is to clarify them. So, for the second time, I am inviting you to clarify them. Accusations of gibberish is not being responsive, it is merely obfuscation.

    it is the anti-science who are attacking their straw man “scientism” who are the extreme ideologists.

    That looks like more obfuscation couched in hyperbolic language. You should know that it is permissible to question scientism and be pro-science at the same time. I know that several prominent readers of this blog are strongly pro-science and at the same time anti-scientistic. I certainly am strongly pro-science and at the same time deeply sceptical of the scientism dogma.

    A final note. It is a healthy thing to adopt a questioning attitude and demand that some of the more ideological dogmas justify themselves.

    A healthy response would be to clarify your assertions and respond thoughtfully. I invite you to do that.


  18. Coel,
    “If we knew everything about your genes and about the environment in which you developed and lived, then likely we would be able to give a straightforward scientific explanation of your aesthetic preferences.”
    I call this the ‘god argument,’ since what it implies is that ‘once we attain (god-like) knowledge of everything, all our questions will be answered.’ This argument appears in a number of philosophies and ideologies, including some religions. My favorite such argument is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (through the crucible of the dialectic we attain Absolute Knowledge), because Hegel implies that the science and philosophy of his day had already achieved this. He thought the historical process of discovery, debate, synthesis, as well as development of new interests to explore, was completed. He was wrong.
    I know you’re not arguing that history is over and there is no new knowledge to acquire. But that was only the proof of Hegel’s real problem. The god argument itself is wrong, because we are historically and empirically contingent knowers. Even if I granted your claim (and I don’t), the explanation you could give for my aesthetic preferences could very well be right today and wrong tomorrow, dependent largely on contingencies your explanation couldn’t predict. Some of the possible changes could have scientific explanation – e.g., alterations in neurotransmitters in the brain. But others would not – e.g., hearing that a loved one died while listening to a certain song. How that would change my response to the song would depend on a number of factors, having to do with previous experience, previous value choices, contextual relationships (e.g, whether I like my loved one’s family, and cultural codes of showing them sympathy; mutual friends we had and my perceived responsibilities to these; not to mention issues concerning children if there are any involved), as well as dealing with whatever emotions (or other internal responses) I would be feeling (also partly culturally coded); and there would obviously be practical matters to take care of, e.g., going to the hospital, and so on.
    Sorry for the run on sentence! But such listings of possible issues to confront in a moment of crisis do all finally form the whole of the experience.
    And yes, if all of these contingencies could be accounted for, then how I would afterwards respond to the song I was listening to at the time could be fully explained – possibly scientifically, or perhaps, per Hegel, dialectically.
    But only a god could know all this about me; and I don’t believe in god.


  19. labnut, I knew you wouldn’t answer the question, but try to deflect it. I never said science was the only means of producing knowledge – I am fully on board with Massimo that it isn’t. The question is can theology find out what is beyond the universe using methods unavailable to science?


  20. Excellent article, a good summary on the diversified views both on science and scientism. In principle, I will accept that “Determining a text and authorship (such as, on Shakespeare” is a kind of science. But, in practice, this broadened definition will make us losing our focus. Thus, I will keep science as science of physics, of biology, of math, etc. For commenting on this article, I will narrow that scope even further, to the base (hardcore) of science, and that base can even be the base of other non-science ‘knowledge’. Thus, I will comment on three issues.

    One, the base (hardcore) of science, which is also the base for many non-science knowledge. This base is expressed with a simple question: “What” is the base (source) for ‘this’ universe? With this ‘base’, I will use ‘physics’ to represent science in this comment.

    Two, how many different knowledge are addressing this ‘base’? I will compare ‘physics’ with those other knowledge.

    Three, what is the essence of the ‘current physics paradigm (CPP)’? Can this CPP address this ‘base’ issue?

    I will start the second part of the third issue first. The answer is no; the CPP is unable to address this ‘base’ issue. Both the ‘inflation and big bang’ are ‘processes’ during the ‘evolution’ of this universe, not about its source for the rising of this universe. The multiverse with Boltzmann brain can kind of be a mechanism for the rising of ‘life’ but is not the source for the rising of this universe. At this point, the ‘current physics paradigm (CPP)’ is unable to address a simple issue (the source of the rising of this universe) which was addressed by many other knowledge. This single issue will define what the ‘Scientism’ can possibly be.

    Now, let’s look the ‘knowledge’ of other-isms on this ‘base’ (which can be called as ultimate-reality, the UR) issue.

    First, Christianity: it ‘claims’ by decree that the UR is absolutely ‘incomprehensible’. As no one can ever comprehend the UR, it has no fear of being challenged. That is, everything it says is the Gospels, my way or the highway.

    Second, Confucianism: the UR is the ‘Tien’ with the omnipotent-Will which is the eternal ‘morality’ (eternal and immutable). The ‘manifestation’ of the Morality is humanity. Thus, the human can ‘unite’ with Tien via ‘participation’ in this eternal morality. The two canons of Confucianism are Yijing and ‘Confucius Analects’ (the entire translation of Analects is available at ).

    Third, Taoism: the UR is ‘nothingness’ (the eternal and immutable) which manifests as ‘Tao’ which governs ‘life’-mechanisms (transient and mortal). Thus, by ‘reversing’ this manifested Tao, one can go back to the pre-manifested state (the eternal and immutable), that is, the immortality.

    Fourth, Buddhism: with the ‘emptying’ anything not UR, the UR is the ‘final-emptiness’ (eternal and immutable). As everything (including the language) has emptied out, this UR although ‘reachable’ is undescribed with language. That is, again, my way or the high way; my way is way beyond ‘your’ understanding. Call it ‘mysticism’ if you please.

    Fifth, the ‘current science’: while Buddhism empties out all non-UR realities, science analyzes all non-UR realities, and it gains the solid knowledge on all those non-UR realities. These solid knowledge have changed humanity completely with its technological success, from car, airplane, …, computer, iphone, etc. But, the ‘current physics paradigm (CPP)’ does not have any chance of addressing this UR issue under the Popperianism, and most of physicists are simply denying that UR is a physics-reality (the physics-anti-realism).

    In the above five, the non-science four are all recognizing that UR has two attributes {timeless (eternal) and immutable}. But these two are ‘states’, not ‘processes’. Thus, none of them is able to give a description of how ‘this’ current universe arose from that ‘states’ in addition to some nonsense claims, such as the 6-day creation in the Genesis and the stupid mysticism of Buddhism. Yet, they have showed that ‘nothingness’ could have the attributes of timeless and immutability. On the other hand, both the timeless and immutability are not ‘realities’ in the CPP. The closest ‘nothingness’ in CPP is one non-zero zero {the Cosmology Constant}, (see, ). That is, the ‘Current Science’ has no ability to address this UR issue for two major reasons while all the Atheists are pretending that they know something beyond these two reasons.
    A. The inflation, big bang and multiverse are not addressing the UR (the base of giving rise to this universe) issue.
    B. The UR must be ‘timeless and immutable’, but it is way beyond the reach by the CPP (current physics paradigm).

    The major problem of the non-science four is that they are totally ignorant about how to transform the UR (timeless and immutable) to this ‘dynamic’ universe. If physics wants to success, it must do two things.
    1. Clearly define a UR (timeless and immutable).
    2. These two attributes of UR must be ‘processes (not merely as concepts)’.

    Indeed, they are. As processes, they must produce ‘products’. Again, they are.
    One, the timeless process should produce a ‘constant’: the Alpha (fine structure constant).

    Two, the immutable process should produce an ‘unchanging structure’: the G-string (string unification, see ).

    By resolving these two UR issues (definition and processes), physics is now the only-ism which is able to describe this UR issue completely. Now, scientism, here it is.


  21. Michael,
    I knew you wouldn’t answer the question, but try to deflect it

    That was so obviously a mischievous and derailing question I saw no point in answering it. I hope you watched the referenced video. It is entertaining and makes my point nicely. Plus Dan Ariely writes some good books(you should read them).

    can theology find out what is beyond the universe using methods unavailable to science?

    See Massimo’s succinct reply.

    Your question is of course a complete red herring, which is why I call it mischievous and derailing.
    Let me state the painfully obvious – the right tool to answer questions about the natural world is science. So why ask such a pointless question if you are not being mischievous.

    When I last spoke to our parish priest he was too busy consoling grieving parents, organising soup kitchens, counselling troubled teenagers, organising bursaries for poor students and giving his flock ethical guidance to have time for designing the Pontifical Hadron Collider.

    Or to put it bluntly, Michael, it is time to stop grinding your axe and time to concentrate on the real debate.


  22. So the answer is that religion/theology is not a method for producing knowledge of any kind – is that what you are claiming, labnut?

    Because you seem to be changing the subject – I asked about knowledge not knowledge of the natural world (unless you are claiming that is all there is). You obviously don’t think that science is the only means of producing knowledge or you wouldn’t be railing against scientism so vehemently.

    I am serious about this and want to know because people keep claiming things like the following:

    US National Academy of Science;

    Science and religion are different ways of understanding. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of both to contribute to a better future.

    From the Clergy Letter Project:

    We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

    Are these groups wrong? or is religion able to produce a unique way of understanding different from science or philosophy or history or literature or …. or is it a form of truth?

    What was the question you wanted addressed?


  23. Michael,
    sigh, you are still determined to grind your axe. You remind me of the prosecutor who is determined to get a certain outcome and persists in asking leading questions designed to force that outcome. By now the jury are bored and dozing off. That is the good news

    The bad news is you are grinding the wrong axe, and needlessly wasting a lot of energy. That happens when you ask the wrong question and you have been asking the wrong question, in extremis.

    Let me explain. Religion is not about knowledge, it is about behaviour. It is about ethical behaviour, compassionate behaviour, forgiving behaviour, peaceful behaviour, worshipful behaviour, etc, etc. The Church has a rich panoply of ritual designed to inculcate and maintain this behaviour. That is the second aspect of religion, the rituals designed to encourage, embed and maintain ethical behaviour. There is a third aspect to religion and that is its set of charitable and humanitarian activities whereby the Church puts into practice its ethical beliefs. Religion, then, is made up of these three sets of behaviours, ethical, ritual and humanitarian. I lump it all together under one name, ethical behaviour.

    Now read the Sermon on the Mount (
    This has been called the blueprint for Christianity, it is the core statement of its values.

    Now read it again and ask yourself if this is about science or knowledge. The answer, of course, is NO, of course not. Because, from beginning to end, it is about ethical behaviour. That is what religion is about.

    Not yet convinced? OK, try reading The Prayer for Peace, also known as the Prayer of St Francis –

    Once again, you will see this is about ethical behaviour, not science or knowledge.

    Now please stop grinding your axe, it is after all the wrong axe. Science is about knowledge, religion is about ethical behaviour.


  24. labnut, I am now convinced that you don’t know or understand what knowledge is. Knowing how to behave requires knowledge. It is not science, but that is what this argument is about. You are claiming that knowledge about how to behave comes from God through God’s messengers by your quoting the Bible. So you are claiming that religion produces knowledge. Thanks for clearing that up.


  25. Hi Coel,

    If we knew everything about your genes and about the environment in which you developed and lived, then likely we would be able to give a straightforward scientific explanation of your aesthetic preferences.

    I don’t think you can assume that this will be the case. I would prefer to wait until I see any such scientific explanation before I would go ahead and believe that.

    For a start there could be no scientific explanation or account of what Louis Jourdan’s music or Beethoven’s music sounds like.

    So there could be a complete scientific account of why one might prefer Louis Jourdan over Beethoven only if one’s preference between the two has nothing to do with what the music sounds like.

    Maybe that is true, but I would prefer to wait for the evidence.


  26. Michael,
    I am now convinced that you don’t know or understand what knowledge is
    Unhelpful comment. Obviously I understand what knowledge is, in the ordinary, everyday sense of the word.

    Let’s go back to your original question:
    1) “is religion/theology a “kind of knowledge?
    You further clarified this by saying:
    2) “The question is can theology find out what is beyond the universe

    Now bear in mind the context of the discussion, which is scientism – is science the best, one of many or only form of enquiry about the natural world. Given this context and your clarification in (2), you seem to be asking the question whether religion is a form of enquiry that elicits knowledge about the natural world.

    I replied by saying:
    1) science is the best tool for acquiring knowledge about the natural world;
    2) religion is not about knowledge but about behaviour, in particular it is about ethical behaviour.
    Both (1) and (2) are uncontroversially true.

    You countered by saying that ethical behaviour requires knowledge (of ethics, presumably) and went on to say:

    So you are claiming that religion produces knowledge

    No, Michael, I am not making that claim. I am claiming that religion is a system for inculcating and maintaining ethical behaviour. Where you are going wrong is you are confusing the core objective with subsidiary, supporting activities.

    Let me give you a simple example. I spent my corporate life in a large auto manufacturer. Its core objective is to manufacture vehicles, sell and maintain them(generating profits for shareholders). In the process it produces assembly manuals, workshop manuals, sales manuals, user manuals, IT manuals, financial reports, shareholder reports, etc, etc. These are just some of the supporting activities. In fact, an in joke was that if archaeologists were to excavate Wolfsburg in 2000 years time, they would conclude VW were prolific authors with an unusually large car fleet!

    As the ironic joke illustrates, it would be wrong to conclude from its supporting activities that VW is a knowledge producer. VW is a vehicle producer and any consequent knowledge production is subordinate to that fact. In the same way, you cannot claim that religion is a knowledge producer. Religion is a system of ethical behaviour and it has subordinate activities directed at supporting this core objective.

    What are some of those subordinate activities? Typically the Church researches Biblical texts, other ancient texts and it researches ethical thinking. This produces knowledge, as you claim. But so what? What has this got to do with a discussion of science and scientism? Precisely nothing. It might have been relevant if science provided a competing ethical system. But it doesn’t, it is value neutral.

    Perhaps some of the confusion stems from the conception that religion is about belief in a set of propositions. This is the passive view of religion and it is misleading. Religion is an active thing that is primarily directed at an outcome, that is ethical behaviour. The set of propositions and ritual practices serve to motivate the ethical behaviour.


  27. Scientism:Pt.II “..scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge.”

    An indefensible straw man maybe, but I could agree if it said:
    ‘..scientific knowledge, i.e. gained from past observation/experiment, is the only kind of *non-intuitive* knowledge we should use to choose future action.’
    [Re *intuitive* knowledge: see ## below]

    “OWK..intuiting; looking to one’s cultural tradition; guessing; hoping; wishing; throwing a die or tossing a coin; praying; consulting a guru; having a séance; looking up an ancient religious text which is regarded as authoritative; having out-of-body or near-death experiences; and the like.”

    Yes of course these are all ‘knowledge’ (i.e. information we can hold in private memory or in external data stored in various recorded forms), but their efficacy to forecast future action is much more doubtful than more-scientific knowledge.
    [## “intuiting” is *instantaneous reasoning* using one’s *inherited memory*, that is: reflexes, instincts, gut feelings, emotions, basic morals.. all of which can be used to, wholly or in part, choose/cause specific action -and (IMO) intuiting is far from being unique to human life.]

    David Hume wrote: “..that the FUTURE resembles the past, is not founded on any argument” and that therefore any OUGHT coming by “reason” from an IS must be unjustifiable.
    That our Sun will rise tomorrow is therefore “unjustifiable” because we cannot ‘know’ the future. But should it NOT we shall surely have problems: so we OUGHT (=it is practicably reasonable) to act as though unprovable tomorrows WILL happen.

    Philosophically, and ALSO Scientifically, (Absolute) Truth and Untruth are as unattainable, and as far separated, as Infinity and Nothing. In practice a thing can vary anywhere from nearly 100% Reliably True (a) to nearly 100% Reliably False (b). Ignoring this inevitably leads to contention and Platonic philosophy insisting absolutely that something must be either True or False has caused so much.
    [For instance (in the present state of our knowledge) compare the forecasting accuracies of future timings of (a)solar eclipses and (b)super-nova events.]

    By extrapolating, from prior observation, experiment and experience (including that intuitive memory of ‘experiences’ passed down from our ancestors) we gain the best knowledge to forecast a possible/probable future outcome. This method can, quite correctly, be applied to what may likely become communally-beneficial (i.e. ethical) behaviour. Without such behaviour in common practice (moral “oughts”), we likewise have future problems, Sun shining or not!

    This is what Sam Harris proposed in “The Moral Landscape” even if his suggested maximising “Well-being” as Morality’s purpose is debatable. Yet, however ‘it’ is defined, Sam Harris seems to personify ‘Scientism’ in many SciSal comments, a neuroscientist who has ventured out from his laboratory into the arcane philosophical/religious Field of Morality.
    [Neuroscientists: specialists studying the brain. Even their title suggests of blatant, white-coated Scientism. How would one feel about Astroscientists for example?]

    One paradigm of immorality is Slavery, the worsening of ‘well-being’ of person B by the use of ‘power’ to obtain material gain in the hope of greater well-being by person A. This offends our intuited (evolved) and/or reasoned ideas of fairness also our ‘natural’ discomfort from seeing others misfortune. Yet though Capitalist Democracy does put some restrictions on ‘power’ it still allows/uses considerable disparities in ‘well-being’ and encourages ruthless/talented personalities. And how does natural selection itself operate?


  28. “So you are claiming that religion produces knowledge”

    No, Michael, I am not making that claim.

    Yes you are. You even admit it. And you briefly touch on its methods. Why keep denying it?

    If we want to combat scientism, then we need to understand how knowledge that is not science is gained. Ethics, for instance, is an important area of knowledge and is not science, even though it can use science to help make decisions. If religions are important in guiding ethical behavior, then we need to understand how religions determine what is ethical.


  29. In reply to ejwinner and some others as well.
    In trying to discover what scientism might mean I envisaged that various domains of fact (happenings, etc) might be progressively scientized and that eventually there would be a science of each domain. The thesis of descriptive scientism, DS, attempted to capture that. Perhaps the science might not be good, but it is open to further development. (What do we now think of Freud’s attempt to scientize the domain of jokes, or dreams?) Note that it is some domain of FACT that is to be scientized, if we think of the world being made up of contingent facts. And it is collections of facts that make up various domains. I also emphasized that mathematics and logic would not be an instance of a possible domain. Mathematics and logic may be used in the scientization process of some domain but they would not be one of the domains to be scientized (they are not contingent facts after all).
    Now if one takes a broad view of logic then it will include all the deductive modes of inference as well as the non-deductive such as the HD method, inference to the best explanation, eliminative induction, and so on. This will include all the modes of inference we think are characteristic of scientific methods (but the methods of science might well be more than just such modes of inference). I took logic and method in this broad sense but perhaps did not make it explicit. Now these are modes of inference commonly found in science, but they do not occur only there; they can be found in everyday life, in detective work, in medical diagnosis, in law courts, and the like. And as I mentioned in the paper, Dagfinn Føllesdal argues that we can use the HD method to test interpretative hypotheses in Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. What is happening in all these cases is that quite different propositional content from different fields and domains is used to fill the same argument form. So in a way logic and methodology, in the broad sense intended, floats free independently of the DS thesis. It will be used in scientization but is itself not the object of scientization.
    I am not a great fan of the classical HD method. I think it has some problems and is better replaced by Bayesian modes of inference which captures the good points of the HD method while avoiding the not-so-good. But I mentioned it as a classical form of inference that is commonly found in science and which can have a role elsewhere.
    Now to the examples from the domain of literature. Here I was being exploratory in seeing how far DS might be taken without the quick supposition that it could not be extended at all to this domain. And I did say: “if one makes clear what aspects of literature are being considered [in DS] the case is much less clear cut [against DS]”. The emphasis is on ASPECTS and not the whole domain of literature. This suggests that we might be able to refine what DS claims (which in its initial formulation might well be too implausibly bold). It also suggests that while literature studies might provide some counterexamples to DS it may also provide some positive instances. It is important to realize that most hypotheses have both instances in favor and against. So what I was looking for were some positive instances.
    Many seem to agree that literary judgments lie outside DS. Our choices about what we like/dislike, find exciting and insightful, moving, and so on seem not to be amenable to DS. I am not entirely sure of this and there may well be aspects of individual judgments that do fit DS (what might psychology or personal histories tell us of this?) But I tried to accommodate this point by distinguishing proximal from distal casual explanations putting more emphasis on the role of distal explanations as far as DS is concerned. I take this to be important in considering what Darwinian evolution can tell us about our propensity to engage in story-telling. How close might this bring us to literary judgments? This is something the book I cite by Boyd does attempt. It is worth looking at what argument there might be here.
    What other aspects of literature might be amenable to DS? The first concerns determining authorship and also what might be a text. This is not a common problem for recent literature. But it looms large in, say, Shakespeare studies in determining who wrote what, and what is the text (supposing there is a unique answer here). The surprise is that Shakespeare was a collaborator even on some of the plays that have been solely attributed to him. And this is determined by using statistical methods drawn from science. I take this to be an important part of the study of the literature of the period and its context. This might have some bearing on judgments of literary worth (which some might readily suppose is outside the scope of DS). After all the more we are informed about texts and authorship the better our judgments might be.
    On Føllesdal’s suggestions about the use of the HD method, I think we can agree. It would help literary studies if interpretive hypotheses and the arguments for them had a clearer formulation. One can agree that the hermeneutists can be obscure. And after several decades of postmodernism one can crave for greater clarity. What the example provided by Føllesdal shows on behalf of DS is that a method used in science can also be applied to literary interpretation (and elsewhere as suggested).
    I agree with the point that artists can be influenced by many different things from science to politics. The case of Zola is, however, interestingly different in that he explicitly adopted Bernal’s suggestions about “experimental method” in for example, developing the characters in his novels. This sets him apart from those artists who simply adopted some prevailing political ideology or fashion; instead he adopted what he took to be a scientific approach. (Compare the influence of what many would regard as pseudo-scientists, such as Freud or Lacan, who have had a big influence on literature studies.) Many authors talk of the way in which they develop their characters and what they might know from science (e.g., psychology, social anthropology, etc). So here is a topic to be explored, taking some cues from Zola. I do not know what the results of such a study would be, or even if one has been carried out. But it is better not to reject it a priori; let the facts determine the outcome of this empirical exploration of DS. After all DS is an empirical hypothesis (though formulated schematically).


  30. Michael, you need to go back and read the entirety of my last comment. But I have laid out my position with sufficient clarity that there is no need for me to continue the debate. I have found again and again that good debate forces clarity and once that has been achieved it is enough. There are no winners or losers. Clarity is the winner.

    If we want to combat scientism

    Your remark surprised me. I thought you were on the scientism side of the debate, as most seem to be.

    I don’t hold out much hope for combating scientism. It is an ideology with deep emotional roots. As long as those emotional needs persist so will scientism persist. The human animal needs a motivational belief system. As religion is displaced other belief systems rise to take its place. New Atheism is based on hatred and so only appeals to the few. Humanism has been hijacked by New Atheism and so also has limited appeal. Scientism is the thinking man’s version of New Atheism. It is an attempt to give New Atheism the intellectual foundation which it has until now lacked.

    That too will fail because it lacks any sense of humanity. The future lies in humanism purified of hatred, if it can be divorced from New Atheism. Here is my contribution, a manifesto for New Humanism, the secular version of the Prayer of St Francis:

    *Manifesto for New Humanism*

    *A Prayer for Humanity*

    Beloved humanity, let me be an instrument for our peace;
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is error, truth;
    Where there is pain, healing;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy;
    Where there is intolerance, respect.

    Beloved humanity, I will not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    And it is in living that we give life.

    I am sure St. Francis would approve.
    This is what we need, a noble vision, purified of hatred, that can serve as a unifying force for people of all persuasions.


  31. I recently came upon the following paper

    Click to access EMR000138b-Zentner.pdf

    which seems an apposite example. My conception of science includes psychology, and the use of the mathematical methods of psychometrics, so this meets my definition of a scientific paper, even though the topic is:

    “a language at the interface of science and poetry that may serve as a better approximation to [musical] qualia than is offered by declarative or propositional statements and yet be amenable to formalization and quantification.

    A lot of the counterexamples to a “workable” “expansionist” scientism brought up this thread seem to suggest the everyday things social scientists do are not science. And several commentators have brought this exact accusation against evolutionary psychology. Sure, a lot of them are hard to prove, but they are scientific hypotheses. One particular one I am puzzling over at the moment is whether the high frequency of blue eyes in Northern Europe is due to frequency-dependent sexual selection – I’m not sure there is a better alternative…


  32. In my view there’s an argument being made that says:
    -There are properties that some/many people strongly associate with science.
    -Whenever one finds/believes such a property to be present, whatever manifests the properly should be deemed to be “science.”
    -Doing this is not consistent with how scientists or members of other disciplines define their fields of study or with how the word ‘science’ is used in ordinary conversation, but that’s okay.
    -The terms ‘scientific knowledge’ and ‘scientific fact,’ will now be redundant, but that’s not a problem either.
    -This new approach which changes the aforementioned properties from necessary conditions to sufficient conditions is an improvement because the status quo fails to acknowledge the profound importance of those properties whereas the new approach recognizes their importance.

    I take for granted that scientism advocates will say that’s a straw man, but it seems fair to me (esp if writing an experimental novel is claimed as science). What just occurred to me is how similar this is to a recurring joke from the sitcom ‘Cougar Town.’ One of the characters will identify an idiom which they think should have a different meaning. For example, if something “kicks ass,” that means it’s horrible, “junk in the trunk” refers to emotional baggage, and since “slim chance” means something probably won’t happen, “fat chance” means that it definitely will. If the others agree that the new meaning is better, then Ellie says, “Change approved!” Either Travis or Grayson, who’re the least wacky and often act as the straight man, object that they can’t just create a new meaning for an idiom because they prefer it that way.

    Ellie: I hope I get some rest on this vacation. Lately, I’ve been sleeping like a baby.
    Jules: Oh, you poor thing.
    Grayson: Sleeping like a baby is a good thing.
    Jules: Babies wake up every 10 minutes hungry and screaming. That is not restful.
    Grayson: No, no, no, no, don’t do that thing where you take a well-established saying and then change it to… Where’s Ellie?
    Ellie: Change approved!

    Obviously, Massimo is Grayson.


  33. I may be one of the very few, if no the only one, to side entirely with Coel on his presentation and argumentation.

    I noted a few sentences of his on which I intended to write more elaborate comments, but this being the week-end, I am short of the passion I should experience to bring this kind of disquisition to full form.

    So, to stay within a valid framework for understanding the working of the brain, I prefer to use the language proposed by Daniel Kahneman of “System 1” — to denote the mental activity that brings material to the brain directly and spontaneously, be it from perceptions, impressions, memories, implicit or explicit, but spontaneous, judgments, and immediate emotions — and System 2 — as the critical aspect of mental work that examines and studies, by comparison and evaluation, the material presented spontaneously by intuitive System 1.

    That is, I don’t rely any more on the endless disputations about the meanings of abstract words as if they magically contained their meaning. “Explaining” the meaning of an abstract word can be a slow process of untangling of all the mental connections for which this word is used in the brain. Sometimes a sentence is enough for clarity if the idea is simple, but often a whole book is necessary. In some cases, a lifetime of arguing and preaching, say “salvation of souls”, “natural selection”, “general relativity”, “imperialism”, etc..

    Instead of the “philosophy of the mind”, or “philosophy of language”, etc… I find it preferable and more exciting to follow the findings of the “psychology of the mind”, the “experimental and historical study of language”, etc..

    Here are the quotes from Coel’s posting which I found particularly stimulating and worthy of additional elaboration.

    “I don’t believe that there was a time in your life when you were dubious about the assertion 1 + 1 = 2, but then consulted Peano’s axioms, and after some logical thought concluded that, yes, 1 plus 1 really must equal 2”

    That is, numbers have originated in the immediate working of System 1’s intuition and perception of space, time,and the distinction of objects. Any discussion of what axioms, principles, or rules, or assumptions, comes only in a second phase, as critical work of System 2, which has its work cut out for it, with the immediate products of the involvement of the brain with the world in which the brain exists and operates. The successive steps of System 2 elaboration are illustrated by the historical development of meanings.

    “their experimentations with axioms are productive because their logic and intuitions are also empirical products.”

    The working of the brain is a natural product anchored in the natural world our brains live in, and it produces intuitions and spontaneous logic in System 1, whatever the sophisticated elaborations that have been the domain of System 2’s critical thought ince the Ancient Greeks (in our Western tradition) and, only as an example, Aristotle.

    “Thus our intuition is very much an empirical product.”

    It goes without saying, when you look at it from in the framework of the experimental psychology of the mind.

    “Further, we can ask about instinct, that portion of our intuition that is not the product of life experiences, but is encoded in the genes. Our genetic programming will also be a product of empirical reality. Our brains are the product of evolutionary natural selection, and thus have developed to make real-time decisions that aid survival and reproduction. Obviously, decision-making that bore no relation to the real world would be useless, and thus we can have some confidence that our intuitions are to a large extent programmed to produce decisions well-aligned to empirical reality.

    Again, no disputing this important point.
    Even Darwin got interested in the evolution of sexual preferences and the psychology of emotions as intimately connected with the evolution of our animal nature, including the working of the human brain. We’re now focusing on the evolution of the reflecting brain.

    “Thus we would expect our intuition to be reliable only with respect to the everyday world relevant to survival and reproduction, and to be unreliable about aspects of the universe (such as quantum mechanics and general relativity), that are irrelevant for everyday life.
    Thus we should accept intuition as a useful “quick guide to reality,” but ultimately we should not accept it except where corroborated by empirical evidence. Indeed, the whole point of the scientific method is to use empirical evidence to do much better than just consulting our “quick guide” intuition.”

    The core of Coel’s argument, which I concur with without any quibbles.
    Intuition is a feature of our System 1, but our human brain is also able to stop the immediate working of intuition, develop doubts (Hello, Socrates and Descartes) and take time to do research in order to provide confirmation or information. The whole development of knowledge and science is in this dynamic.

    “our intuition is very much derived from and steeped in the logic of our own empirical world — indeed our brains have evolved precisely to model the logic of our world — and thus we would not expect them to be in any way useful for contemplating radically different alternatives.
    the question of how we came to learn about that logic.  And the only plausible answer is that we learned from observation of the empirical universe and thence deduction about the logic by which it operates.
    And fundamentally the same basic rules of evidence apply throughout.”

    Our working brain developed in its own natural environment, it has its own “Sitz im Leben” in its world. The brain does not operate in a void, generating ideas and “meanings” in a celestial or imaginary platonic atmosphere, but is anchored in a real base of its own. There is a “Grund”, not of our being, but of our thinking.

    “The different subject labels can be useful, but there are no dividing lines marking the borders.”

    The labels are the product of institutionalized knowledge, research and teaching, first started in the schools of Ancient Greece. Modern universities have managed to enrich and develop the ancient system further, but the divisions are essentially products of System 2 working in the framework of academies and universities.


  34. PS: What I neglected to say before is that Grayson is right. When the gang (they call themselves the ‘Cul de Sac Crew’) use the idiom with the ‘new meaning’ around someone else they cause confusion or else have to explain it, with an embarrassed Travis and Grayson rolling their eyes. The meaning changes, therefore, are preferred by and considered useful by 6 people, understood but considered to be wrong and annoying by 2, and for everyone else in the world, they give the wrong impression.

    That’s a very good allegory for scientism, IMO. It doesn’t really get at what motivates scientism, of course, which is (again IMO) bad philosophy, but it’s a good illustration of why, even if you’re sympathetic to the (bad) philosophy underlying it, you should still reject it.

    For fun, and because scientia is short on comedy, here’s another scene:
    Bobby: (Disappointed) Aw, that really kicks ass.
    Grayson: You know, when something kicks ass it’s usually a good thing.
    Bobby: Hell, every time I’ve had my ass kicked it’s been horrible.
    Andy: We’ve been misusing that phrase for years, so let’s all agree to change it?
    Laurie: Absolutely.
    Grayson: No, you can’t just change common phrases okay? Words have meaning!
    Ellie: Change approved!


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