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. 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;

    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

    Again, I must ask which one of these is the article above using? Does it use a method from the first list?

    Or from the second list?

    Or is the article itself not imparting any knowledge at all?

    That is not supposed to be a cheeky questioh, that is, as I see it, the heart of the matter.

    Is the author using science in these articles? If so then which method of science is he using?

    I can only take an argument in favour of scientism seriously if the arguer is prepared to show that they are using science to do so.


  2. Hi Robin,

    That is not supposed to be a cheeky questioh, that is, as I see it, the heart of the matter.

    Observation, description and interpretation are all very basic parts of science, and the article uses those. When the term “science” is used in a scientismistic way, it doesn’t mean only the highly developed methods such as double-blinded randomised, controlled trials coupled with sophisticated statistical analysis.


  3. Coel, but those activities are also basic parts of any kind of human reasoning. Which commits you to the proposition that we are all doing science, all the time. Which completely eviscerates the term “science” of any specific meaning, not to mention that it runs contrary to what most people (including most scientists) understand by the term “science.”


  4. Hi Massimo,

    but those activities are also basic parts of any kind of human reasoning.

    Agreed. (Why would anyone think that science is divorced from basic reasoning?)

    Which commits you to the proposition that we are all doing science, all the time.

    Yes, it does. The doctrine of knowledge as a seamless unity, with all knowledge having the same epistemological sources, does indeed commit to that.

    Most people do indeed acquire most of their knowledge by simple observation and interpretation of the world.

    What we call “science” is then exactly that, but with added refinements. The refinements are both technological (e.g. telescopes, particle accelerators) and methodological (e.g. the controlled, double-blind trials that I mentioned).

    But there is no great epistemological difference (in the same way that “football” can cover anything from professional teams, to kicking a ball around in the back yard with a 5-yr-old).

    Yes, it is normal and useful to reserve the term “science” for the professionalised, sophisticated and developed end of the knowledge-collection spectrum, but the real point is, again, the epistemology of how we acquire knowledge.

    In that regard, what people are doing smashing particles together at CERN is epistemologically kin to the teenage Charles Darwin collecting beetles in his back garden.

    (By the way, I’m entirely happy to concede that the nomenclature is not ideal here, and we perhaps need a better term for this broader sense of “science”, but the more important aspect of “scientism” is the epistemological consilience of knowledge (to use E.O. Wilson’s term).)


  5. “not to mention that it runs contrary to what most people (including most scientists) understand by the term “science.””

    I’m not sure that can be concluded with much confidence. Do scientists really take pause to recognize they are not being scientific when reasoning on how to proceed with naturalistic inquiry?


  6. Well, as a practicing scientist I do think most scientists would recognize, say, navigating the NYC subway as doing science. Could be wrong, we need empirical data…


  7. From the people I know who work in the humanities, their concern is that they have a budget and a certain amount of resources, including time.

    The encroachments being made are things that don’t appear to be actual science but just sciency.

    They don’t want their time and resources being taken up with the I-just-used-“evolutionary”-in-a-sentence-so-it-must-be-science crowd.

    So they say “no problem – if you claim this is science then do with the science resources and the science budget and don’t bother us with it”.

    The problem seems to be that the guardians of the science budget don’t want to see this crossover stuff eating into their resources either.

    Perhaps they don’t think it is science either.

    As for the contributions of real science to humanities, people tell me this has been happening for quite a long time now and is fairly uncontroversial.


  8. I could be wrong, but it almost seems that something becomes “science” when practitioners explicitly define their methods. A case in point might be systematics – before Hennig or Sokal and Sneath each “expert” drew a tree based on his or her “intuition.” Now almost no one would advocate that.


  9. One possible problem with this approach alone is, for example, its failure to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. Or, more broadly construed, if a novelist explicitly defines his method in writing a novel, does it suddenly take on a scientific rather than an artistic intent?


  10. I am entirely with Coel on this point.

    Science is knowledge, but let’s say knowledge of facts reviewed, analyzed, verified, and sanctioned by multiple critical examination.

    Yes, this is, from our modern academic view, a “wide” definition of science, but it could be argued that, historically, academic sciences (plural) as forms of specialized and formalized research and study of specific fields are simply narrower and institutionalized meanings of the global meaning of knowledge.

    Historically this trend of specialization and separation could be dated for us to the Renaissance times, when men (and some women) of means and time could still become conversant with many aspects of knowledge.

    Although, in all fairness, it must be noted that the Ancient Greeks had already started this business of defining different fields or research, study, and knowledge: geometry, arithmetic, physics, astronomy, logic, music, medicine, warfare, even knowledge about sports in running, disc throwing, etc. Aristotle could be cited in this connection.
    We are blinded and confused by the myopic academic definitions of departments in universities, and the further labeling of “school of Arts and Sciences” (Hello, Harvard!).


  11. Scientism, at its simplest, is the belief(faith?) that all problems of the natural world can, or will be solved/explained by science, if not now then ultimately.

    For that to be true the following statements must also be true:

    1) There must be a _compelling_ scientific reason that shows that science can solve/explain all problems.
    To date no one has produced such a compelling scientific reason. All we have is ‘just so’ stories. It worked pretty good in the past and so _’must’_ continue to do so in the future. Why _’must’_? The answer comes down to hand waving and faith.

    2) There must be _no exceptions_, so far, because even one exception is enough to falsify the belief.
    Unfortunately for the scientismists, there is one glaring exception. Penrose has calculated that the entropy at the Big Bang must be less than one part in 2^10^10^128(Sean Carroll and others accept the accuracy of his calculation). What this means is that no information can be preserved through the Big Bang. It means, in consequence, that science cannot observe and explain anything that happened outside our Universe(or even if there is anything outside our Universe?).

    Therefore, there is at least one known exception to the scientismist act of faith that everything can be explained/observed by science.

    So, scientism fails on both accounts:
    1) It has failed to provide a compelling scientific reason why science _must_ be able to solve/explain all problems.
    2) There exists at least one problem that science cannot describe/explain and therefore we can conclude that logically there may be more.

    3) Furthermore, as Aravis has so cogently pointed out, we have no way to derive intentionality from matter. This is because
    1) we cannot derive ought from is;
    2) we cannot derive normative from facts;
    3) we cannot derive consciousness from computing.

    Taken together, these three objections constitute a fatal objection to scientism.

    The debate has become dull and boring.
    What is more interesting is the extreme ideological devotion that scientism inspires.
    Now why should that be?


  12. Roo, well,if you are going that route, then I’d suggest that the appropriate term to use is philosophy, not science, since that’s what all those people from the ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment thought they were doing… But that’s a silly conclusion, no?


  13. labnut, yes, good question, why should scientism inspire such devotion? I hinted at one possible answer the other day – cultural imperialism – and Coel actually agreed. Now, I consider cultural imperialism a bad and unjustified thing, but obviously others (E.O. Wilson comes to mind) don’t.


  14. Coel, Massimo,

    I think you both have some merit to your positions on whether it is justifiable to construe science broadly.

    On Massimo’s side, if mathematics, analytical philosophy, common sense (e.g. plumbing) are all considered to be part of science, then science is so all-encompassing as to be (almost) meaningless.

    On Coel’s side, the statement “Science is the only valid way of knowing” is not vacuous or empty on such an all-encompassing definition, because it still excludes all the other ways of knowing alluded to in the article, e.g. intuiting, guessing, praying etc.

    As such, I think the difference between you is not as large as it appears.

    In ordinary usage, it is appropriate to take ‘science’ to mean the formal, rigorous academic study of man and the natural world. However, when discussing the foundations of epistemology and the like, it seems me to be appropriate to consider how the methods of science are often pretty much the same as those applied in other domains, and to use ‘science’ as an umbrella term for all these practices.

    I still wouldn’t really consider mathematics to be science, but I’m reasonably inclined to view favourably the application of the term to the experimentation of a plumber.


  15. Would this all encompassing scientistic view of knowledge also include the normative aspects of philosophy (epistemology and ethics/morality)? How exactly are the methods of physics continuous with epistemology or ethics/morality?

    This seems to be a debate on Scientia Salon that keeps recycling itself as it seems to be based on different definitions. However, I’m with Massimo on this one on a purely pragmatic ground. Expanding out the definition of science to encompass all of human reasoning (logic, math, natural science, social science, philosophy, history, etc…) is just plain confusing as that is not the common usage of science (Scientia would be a better term for this IMO) and it fails to highlight relevant differences in these different areas of inquiry (logic vs natural science), even if ultimately they are on a continuum.


  16. SciSal,
    Coel’s agreement is a rare thing indeed! He is probably regretting it.
    Yes, I agree cultural imperialism is an important force. It is such a tribal force, a form of dominance behaviour that I see in my dogs. It gives scientismists an opportunity to be the top dog. And they should not be proud of the primitive emotions driving their behaviour.

    But why should scientismists feel the need to assert this dominance, to be the top dog? I think the clue can be found in the counter-knowledge movement(yes, I know I keep mentioning this). This movement is threatening to those whose identity is bound up with science. Anthony Giddens explained that the attitudes of humankind in late modernity(his term) have changed radically. He called today’s young adults the ‘pastiche man’. They no longer accept knowledge on authority but instead assemble their beliefs at will from many sources. They are the final arbiter of their own beliefs. The result is a patchwork of beliefs, some justified and the others just folk beliefs. They are a fertile ground for the various counter-knowledge movements and they threaten the primacy of scientific thinking.

    Scientism thus seems to be a primitive emotion, derived from the need for dominance, to be the top dog, amplified by the fear that that their dominance is being threatened by the pastiche man’s lack of regard for their authority.


  17. Don’t know that I would go as far. But it is likely the case that the current resurgence in scientism is a direct response to the famous science wars of the ’90s. A number of physicists dismissive of philosophy I have talked to, for instance, have essentially equated philosophy with postmodernism! I’m not accusing participants to this forum of that kind of colossal ignorance, but it is astounding when it comes from a number of highly visible public intellectuals.


  18. To add to what I said above. An acquaintance once said that contempt was the nectar of academia. And academia certainly go out of their way to reinforce this impression. Contempt is the motivating force of cultural imperialism. Contempt is the force that allows them to hold the high ground and enjoy the emotional satisfaction of disdain. Scientism would seem to be a way of seizing the highest ground and deriving the most satisfaction.


  19. I sometimes wonder if it is not a case of ‘the tools maketh the man’. It seems that their tools have imprisoned their minds, blinding them to reality their tools cannot reach.


  20. What about navigating the large, unknown oceans? Did that require a modicum of knowledge, and verified knowledge at that, even if India didn’t turn out to be on the selected route of Columbus?
    Was the new knowledge acquired by the Portuguese navigators become part of science, or just part of fiction and dreams. Was geography a “science”, or just popular romance?

    The blindness resulting from institutionalized knowledge and brains trapped by institutional functioning, is certainly an interesting aspect of experimental psychology, how the brain fabricates its own theories in our modern age.
    Yes, what about the profound insight derived from using new terms like “scientismistycism”, etc., everybody can play at this game of naming knowledge any new intriguing way he/she chooses. Big deal!


  21. Hi Massimo,

    … if you are going that route, then I’d suggest that the appropriate term to use is philosophy, not science,…

    Sure, we could return to the old name for science, namely “natural philosophy”. Would that make the philosophers happier about scientism (aka “natphilosophism”)? Of course in doing so we could also ditch the unnatural philosophy (which in those days was mostly theology).

    Hi imzasirf,

    Would this all encompassing scientistic view of knowledge also include the normative aspects of philosophy (epistemology and ethics/morality)?

    Well, there aren’t any normative aspects to ethics/morality, other than human feelings and opinion, and yes, scientistic science does include the study of humans and thus of human emotions and feelings.

    On epistemology, I’m unsure what the question means, what is normative about epistemology?


  22. Hi labnut,

    Welcome back!

    Therefore, there is at least one known exception to the scientismist act of faith that everything can be explained/observed by science.

    I’ve never heard anyone who defends scientism claim that scientism can explain/observe everything. My own list of things that science cannot answer is in this post, Scientism and questions science cannot answer.

    Now, a more usual scientistic claim restricts to things that humans can know about. As I put it: “scientism it is the claim that no non-scientific method of enquiry can obtain an answer that science cannot”.

    Furthermore, as Aravis has so cogently pointed out, we have no way to derive intentionality from matter. […] 3) we cannot derive consciousness from computing.

    You and Aravis making mere assertions of this sort is not actually an argument.


  23. So, labnut, in all this psychoanalysis have you ruled out the possibility that people adopt scientism because it explains a heck of a lot and may well be the correct approach to epistemology?


  24. I’ll let labnut reply on his own, but I certainly have considered it, and I see very few epistemologists who would agree with you. When you enlarge the definition of a word to encompass almost everything that word ends up explaining close to nothing.


  25. Coel wrote:

    “You and Aravis making mere assertions of this sort is not actually an argument.”


    You know, I don’t mind having debates with you, so long as they are straight and on the up-and-up. But if you are going to misrepresent and distort what others have said, then I am not going to continue. Normally, I get paid to teach philosophy.

    I have hardly made “mere assertions”. I have provided argument after argument, explanation after explanation. With respect to ontological reductionism, I painstakingly went through the explanation of why Currency is not a physical kind, even though each individual instance of currency is a physical token. I referenced—more than once—Jerry Fodor’s seminal paper, “Special Sciences”, in explaining why the reduction of special science kinds yields you nothing but indefinite disjunctions, which themselves are not kinds in any physical science.

    To each point you simply “disagree” or make some question-begging point to which we then have to begin the reply all over again. Or you just stamp your foot—Yes! Worms DO TOO have intentionality!” And then you suggest that other people aren’t making arguments.

    I’m not sure what more you want, in this kind of a forum. Like I said, I get paid to teach. I am willing to engage in free conversation on the internet, but I am not willing to teach an entire seminar on intentionality or reductionism without pay. It’s fine if you disagree, and we can leave it at that. But don’t you try to say that I am not making any arguments. That’s just flat out false.


  26. Yes, the article uses philosophy instead of the favorite laundry list of scientific methods devised by philosophers who wanted to create limits to science. The article also fails.


  27. Coel,
    “…the possibility that people adopt scientism because it explains a heck of a lot”

    Yes, I agree that is an important reason for many people. There is something beguiling, even seductive about the way that science can so exactly explain so many things.

    I also think there is an important self selection effect. Science selects for certain kinds of people, possibly people who need greater certainty and exactitude in life. Possibly they are deeply uncomfortable with ambiguity. As an example of this self selection effect, in my own adoptive profession of software engineering we found that we employed an unduly high percentage of control freaks. They needed the high level of control that programming provided. But these control freaks were dreadful when it came to interacting with our clients.

    Then there is the natural need to elevate the importance of our own tribes, especially the tribe we elected to belong to. It is a kind of confirmation bias and so, for example, I tend to think that software development is really, really important but my son thinks that accountants are the ones who really run companies.

    All of this helps to explain the natural tendency for each of us to advance our own fields and we extol our successes as part of the process of justification.

    Even so, I am startled by the strong tendency of some to claim the primacy of science. The insistent strength of their claims seems to speak of a deeper emotional need.

    ‘may well be the correct approach to epistemology?’

    That is a very strong claim to make when science addresses only certain kinds of knowledge.


  28. Mont Pelerin philosophy indeed.

    Hayek’s three types of scientism boil down to the claim that individuals have autonomous free will to express their human nature, which exists and is causal for society; the denial that there are any emergent phenomena in history and society, that it is all explained by properties of individuals (human nature, personal psychology and ideas from nowehere; that real science is predictive but you can’t make predictions in history, society or economy. This last was particularly important to an economist who proposed a theory of trade cycles.

    Sometimes Popper’s views are supposed to be outdated and sometimes they’re not. I stick with “always wrong” myself. I will note that Popper could not be trusted to represent his opponents honestly.

    The OP addresses the other Ways of Knowing in the middle section yet omits what is probably by far the most common: Authority. In political life (which is also moral life, though I think philosophy doesn’t admit this, judging from the disappointing Sandel book Justice,) apparently most people believe what the government says. In moral life, the treatment of other people is learned largely by following convention, not by theological ruminations (contra the intentional state vision,) which may not include church attendance, yet never escapes religion.

    Claiming there is no scientific knowledge about society or history or economy means leaving what actual debate there is about politics and morals (again, intimately intertwined subjects,) premised on the philosophical equality of all views. This by the way includes irrationalism. This may be anathema to the philosopher but the project of setting limits in principle to knowledge carries a heavy price.


  29. This is a good point. Not everything said to be said science is. That’s not a limit in principle so you have to refute fallacious appeals to the authority of science on a case by case basis. This must be tedious but there you are.


  30. 1. Arbitrarily high standard. Also, unsupported, since your argument entails denying what has been explained is knowledge, which is an insanely difficult task if you actually look at evidence.
    2. Same point, so still an arbitrarily high standard. Also, sciencey, not science. Even if it wasn’t fatally ambiguous about what it meant by “entropy,” none of the conclusions follow.
    3.We can determine what must be and what can’t be and we can try to determine who benefits from what is, all of which are crucial to serious discussion of ought. Hume was a moderate. Those couldn’t be trusted not to dim the Enlightenment if it threatened too harsh a light. Also, the tacit assumption that ought should have nothing to do with is, is another philosophical enormity.
    4. Norms should be derived from values. Arguing that people’s values should not be the basis of norms but on what you choose is another philosophical enormity. In other words, there is no abstract, universal Reason, but reasoning towards goals, which must come from what people want to do. Otherwise, the alleged Reason is an apologia, an ideology in the pejorative sense.
    5.Fatally ambiguous about whether simulation is computing. Also…Yet. Proof that AI is impossible is proof the Mind is something non-physical in the sense it doesn’t follow natural laws, but it’s own.

    There is no mystery about why the conventional want to limit the authority of science lest it be used in social critique.


  31. labnut, is religion/theology a “kind of knowledge?” If so, can you explain what knowledge it produces and how it produces it? I am particularly interested in its claims of knowledge production and you seem to be the person to do it.


  32. “no non-scientific method of enquiry can obtain an answer that science cannot”

    I like that!

    (Though I would still call myself a physicalist vs. scientismist.)


  33. The commentators have raised many interesting questions. A number have asked a question that Robin Herbert has urged. What methods do I use in my article? Are they the methods of science or not?
    In the final section of my article I refer to a paper by Dagfinn Follesdal in which he applies the Hypothetico-Deductive method (HD) to a hypothesis about a character in a play by Ibsen. Here the hypothesis is qualitative in character and the data used to test it comes from the play and the circumstances of Ibsen’s life. Not your normal use of HD! Commonly in the use of HD in science the hypotheses are equations and the data which provides the test is quantitative in character. Yet the form of the argument is much the same in science as in Follesdal’s reconstruction of a bit of Ibsen’s play. In fact the HD method is probably as old as Plato who uses the “method of hypotheses” in his dialogues. So the HD method is used in science, in philosophy and in literary criticism – and a host of other places. As logicians say, the argument has a form but the propositional content that gets put into the form can be quite varied depending on the subject.
    So my answer is: the same form of argument, the HD method, is common over science, philosophy, and elsewhere. Perhaps it is misleading to think of the HD method as just a method used exclusively in science. This leads to the question: am I using the methods of science in my article, or not? To which the answer has to be: yes and no. Yes, because the HD method is used in science. But no, the HD method is used elsewhere as well. And the same can be said of many of the methods one finds in science such is inference to the best explanation. They are used outside science as well as in it. But perhaps clinical trials are not really to be found outside science, though they have spread from their original use in agriculture and medicine to other areas such as education as a way of testing claims.
    In trying to come to grips with the issue of scientism, I tried to set aside the evaluative use of ‘scientism’ (as in ‘great’ or ‘terrible’) and focus on what descriptive content it might have. And so to that end I formulated a descriptive schematic definition (DS) which emphasizes the explanatory character of the thesis of scientism. It comes close to naturalism, not as an ontological doctrine but more as a methodological doctrine about explanations. The schema is to be filled in with particular domains which are to be, or have been, scientized and what explanations have been proposed. A question now arises as to what are the confirmation conditions and the falsification conditions of DS. It clearly has lots of confirmations. But what are its counterexamples? Now in asking a question like this one is doing something that is, again, as old as the Socratic dialogues in which a thesis is advanced, say about courage or knowledge, and is then investigated by the method of seeking counterexamples (Socratic elenchus). One can readily agree that this method has broad use, including science.
    Maybe a simple formation of DS succumbs to counterexamples. Most will agree that perhaps the domains of mathematics and logic do not apply to it. So rather than abandoning the thesis of DS try to reformulate it by imposing restrictions on DS. Now this is a common way of proceeding in science. A hypotheses gets refuted but it is open to reformation. However it is important some say (e.g., Popper, Lakatos) to avoid merely ad hoc reformulations (whatever they be!). Now in investigating DS I had this method in mind. Given some reasonable formulation of DS, what are its counterexamples (and I claim there are some). Then in the light of these counterexamples, one can ask if there a reasonable reformulation of DS that does not succumb to them. Here I try to keep an open mind. In the final section I mention a number of aspects of literature that are open to scientization. But these are some aspects only and not all aspects. So here is a way in which DS might get reformulated that does a good job of capturing its core examples, but avoids easy refutation. What is clear is that science does have an application to literature and literary criticism, and there are common methods to both. But what is much less clear is where the boundaries lie.
    DS is not a truth of meaning, or a necessary truth or anything like that. It is advanced as an empirical hypothesis about the way in which science gets applied to domains of fact. And it is open to test by methods that are employed not just in science but elsewhere. The task in formulating descriptive scientism is to state what its main thesis is in an interesting way and then see what its scope is and where it succeeds and/or fails.


  34. The first third of the second part of Nola’s article provides answers to some of the issues I raised in response to the first part; but not all. The problem of values (and their contingent nature) remain unaddressed, and this haunts the latter two thirds of his text and endangers his argument. His “list of rivals to science within WoK,” for instance is by no means value neutral – he is clearly implying that these WoK just don’t work (and I agree, most of that he lists don’t). Yet this is not thought through carefully. “Intuition,” for instance, is highly problematic; epistemologically, it still has its defenders.
    Nola also indicates that “looking to one’s cultural tradition” is not a very good WoK; except that you had really better know your cultural tradition if you want to ask me to pass the salt at dinner (“please!”).
    But consider this: some form of courtship/marriage occurs in all cultures; but the actual structures of the marriage relationship vary widely. But these structures do not necessarily lead to a “happy” marriage (depending on how a given culture defines such). How does one learn how to live intimately with another person whom, despite all professions to the contrary, one doesn’t really know very well at the outset? The answer should be obvious – the couple live together and learn each other as they go along, dealing with misunderstandings and conflicts as they arise. Or they don’t, and divorce. (Or in some cultures, they learn to live together without intimacy.) That is a way of knowing, and it is not scientific, because it isn’t even “common sense” in Quinean terms. It is simply experience, involving nuances of disposition, verbal and non-verbal communication, empathy and emotional relatedness, erratic chance events, catastrophes and what one may call ‘ordinary miracles’ (e.g., the birth of a child) that cannot be hypothesized or tested beforehand. (We don’t get to ‘experiment’ having a child.)
    But Nola’s main problem remains our values and their contingent nature. Nola seems to glimpse this when he considers “knowing which of two [musical] performances of a work one prefers.” But he assures us: “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.” Not good enough; the DS argument is that science can at least descriptively explain “every domain of facts or happenings.” If science cannot explain why I prefer Louis Jordan to most of Beethoven (which is true), then we have a destructive counter example to Nola’s larger argument.
    But for me, Nola’s argument falls apart when he attempts to drag literature into the argument.
    “1. Determining a text and authorship.” This whole section is utterly superfluous to the reception of a literary text as such. Everything he says here could be said of historical research of the Bible, or of political documents. He might be right but what does that have to do with our enjoyment of The Tempest?
    “2. Interpretive hypotheses.” I don’t know Føllesdal’s work, so I can’t comment on it. However, from Nola’s report Føllesdal seems to be engaging a philosophical debate with traditional hermeneutics theorists like Habermas over critical reading strategies. This may lead to a stronger literary criticism; but deciding this would seem to require a study of the history and epistemology of literary criticism. In other words, we seem to be entering a shady area concerning the philosophic underpinnings of literary reception – not the science of it.
    “3. Zola’s experimental novel.” “Though not all novelists and scholars will agree with Zola” – actually I don’t know many that would; Zola as example of the ‘scientization’ of fiction begs critical questions.
    A lot of the artists of Zola’s era were announcing such projects, many of them supposedly in keeping with then recent discoveries in science – Futurism, Cubism, Situationism, Surrealism – there were as many isms as there were artists. One reason was that there was more art being produced for ever smaller audiences – the artists were claiming turf. Also, they were trying to align themselves with various political ideologies of the day – Marxism, Social Darwinism, Fascism, Socialism, etc. Artists are influenced by politics, science, religion, the social values in their given cultural contexts. A trivial point, but to the point: Nola’s remark is historically uninformed.
    “4. Darwinian evolution and story-telling.” I did some research on the supposed ‘father of literary Darwinism’ (as some call him), Joseph Carroll. I was able to read some of his theoretical writings online but found very little literary criticism by him. Basically his main interest is promoting a modification of Pinker’s theory that artistic forms are side effects of the evolutionary development of language. Does this tell us anything about literature? Well – no. It’s an argument concerning evolutionary psychology. At one point in an interview (, Carroll says: “Identifying adaptive functions for the arts need not detract from the richness and complexity of the arts.” But he’s supposedly a literary theorist! He has to argue how his theory *enhances* our appreciation of “the richness and complexity of the arts.” (Instead he goes on to describe an online psychology quiz to find out what readers think about characters in Victorian novels!)
    When I finally got to snippets of Carroll’s literary criticism in reviews of his texts, I found it read – well, like literary criticism: aesthetic exhortation about appreciating the fascinating characters in great novels doing interesting things; explanations of why he thinks certain novels are worth reading and what we can learn from them. Pretty much what literary critics have been doing since long before ‘literary Darwinism.’
    Finally, note: Although readers and writers have discussed fiction and verse for many centuries, what we now call “Literature” as an academic study is an invention of the mid-19th century. There would be no “Literature,” no canon of “Literary texts”, except that educators 150 years ago agreed it might be a good idea to have one (see, for instance, Graff’s “Professing Literature,” Complex social issues brought this about, complex social values have changed around it, driving conflict and debate. The literary cannon has undergone ongoing revision in response to these changes. What we see here is a morass of conflicting philosophical, social, and political conflicts. Nothing Nola argues gives us reason to think the matter will be settled scientifically; exactly because the matter concerns something we value, and not just ‘what is.’


  35. Dr. Nola
    Thank you for your clarification. Your article reads a little more absolutist than you seem to have intended it.
    I have already raised my objections to your examples of scientizations from the realm of literature.
    Here I question your use of the HD methodology as a specifically scientific/scientistic methodology. “In fact the HD method is probably as old as Plato who uses the “method of hypotheses” in his dialogues.” Are we saying Plato was practicing science? 2000 years before the practice of what we now commonly call science? Are we then appropriating the history of Western philosophy to the project of “scientization?”
    I’m sorry, but this is really starting to sound like ideology. The Christians also appropriated Plato, as somehow proto-Christian theorist for the existence of god. I could never accept that (even when I was a christian!), so I don’t see myself accepting Plato as proto-scientist.
    It is indeed arguable that we use some variant of HD methodology in many realms of experience. It is far, far less clear that we are engaging in science when we do so.
    This is really causing your argument problems – deeper, I think than the problems I’ve noted in previous criticism. If you agree that HD methodology is not specifically scientific, then your argument deflates rapidly into speculation. If you argue that it has always been scientific, then your argument is open to critique from outside – obviously an effort to colonize other disciplines with the project of scientism. In which case you open your position to all the criticisms of the derogatory reading of scientism (B(2)).
    I urge you to rethink the problem of HD methodology, its history and its usage in other disciplines.


  36. I think the concern I have with over-extending the definition of ‘science’ is that the authority that science as an institution has earned for itself, built largely on the back of the rigorous, concretely defined methods that have yielded its practical results, is then shuffled over as semantic baggage in to a much broader, less concretely defined set of methodologies and approaches that are only to a lesser degree (or not at all) responsible for the consistency of those practical results. My concern is two way, that what is called ‘scientific’ may then, in the public mind at the very least, carry with it a sense of authority and determinateness that it may only partially lay legitimate claim to; and that eventually the notion of what is ‘scientific’ may be watered down and trivialised in the public’s mind. In other words my problem with scientism is sociological, not ontological, and in fact I think those on both sides should be more concerned with that aspect of the problem and perhaps stop for a second to remember that the vast majority of people on this planet are not scientists or philosophers.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Michael,
    … is religion/theology a “kind of knowledge?” If so, can you explain what knowledge it produces and how it produces it? I am particularly interested in its claims of knowledge production

    Is philosophy a “kind of knowledge?” If so, can you explain what knowledge it produces and how it produces it? I am particularly interested in its claims of knowledge production and you seem to be the person to do it.

    By the way, you should have a look at what Dan Ariely is doing lately( He does some really good work.


  38. Steven,
    Arbitrarily high standard
    I thought science was all about high standards.

    There is no mystery about why the conventional want to limit the authority of science lest it be used in social critique.

    Let’s try to parse this ambiguous statement with its confusing hints of fear and ambition.
    – who are the ‘conventional’?
    – is this a pejorative term? Why?
    – by contrast, who are the ‘unconventional’?
    – how would the ‘conventional’ limit the authority of science?
    – do the ‘conventional’ want to limit the authority of science?
    – why? I thought science was universally admired.
    – what is the nature of science’s ‘authority’?
    – how does it exercise its ‘authority’?
    – what do you mean by ‘social critique’?
    – does science have some special expertise it can contribute to ‘social critique’, beyond the domain of scientific work?
    – can you give examples?

    Your clarification would help since your statement allows so many different interpretations.


  39. If science cannot explain why I prefer Louis Jordan to most of Beethoven (which is true), then we have a destructive counter example to Nola’s larger argument.

    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.


  40. Hi Aravis,

    To each point you simply “disagree” or make some question-begging point to which we then have to begin the reply all over again. Or you just stamp your foot—Yes! Worms DO TOO have intentionality!” And then you suggest that other people aren’t making arguments.

    Your suggestions that worms and chess-playing computers do not have intentionality are just as much question-begging and foot-stamping as anything I’ve said. If you actually had a good account of intentionality, in terms of its physical substrate, where it comes from, why we have it, and, based on *that*, produced a good argument for why worms do not have it, then you would have an actual argument.

    However, as it is, all that you (and Jerry Fodor) actually have about “intentionality” is an intuition about it. 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.

    I painstakingly went through the explanation of why Currency is not a physical kind, even though each individual instance of currency is a physical token.

    And, as I replied, currency is really a social contract, a set of “IOU notes”. The physical tokens are merely an accounting prop. Thus one looks to root currency in brain states.

    But don’t you try to say that I am not making any arguments. That’s just flat out false.

    OK, I admit that I should not say that you are not making arguments. What I mean is that (as it seems to me, though perhaps this is unfair) your arguments, when probed, turn out to be assertions or intuitions, rather than substantial models of how things are. I’m not aware of any actual argument (as opposed to intuition) that a chess-playing computer does not have intentionality. That is mostly because the terms such as “intentionality” are just used intuitively, rather than based on a good model of what things like “intentionality” and “meaning” actually are.

    A similar example comes from when we were discussing moral realism, with your unwillingess to examine what phrases such as “Jane ought to do X” actually mean, beyond simply treating them as intuitive.


  41. Coel, that’s missing the point entirely, I’m afraid, as Aravis and I explain in the recent bloggingheads tv show. Setting aside for a minute that you have no empirical evidence to back up your metaphysical claim (but I’m with you on that one anyway), the issue is epistemic, not ontological. The problem with scientist is not the claim, say, that everything is made of physical stuff, or that natural laws are the only kinds of regularities in the universe. We all accept that. 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. If you are not convinced, why not go a few more levels down and give us a quantum mechanical explanation of why I, personally, prefer surrealist to impressionistic paintings.


  42. Coel, once more: this isn’t a question of “your intuitions are just as good as mine.” Have you actually read the paper by Fodor that Aravis has mentioned multiple times? You don’t think it contains *arguments*? You think it’s just Fodor saying “well, here’s my intuition,” and leave it at that?


  43. Formal systems are *not* physical systems, so my counterexample stands. Can you point a telescope to the mathematical structure representing Fermat’s Last Theorem?


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