The return of radical empiricism

zby Massimo Pigliucci

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” So wrote Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, one of the most influential philosophy books of all time. Kant is also the philosopher credited for finally overcoming the opposition between empiricism and rationalism in epistemology, as he realized that neither position, by itself, is sufficient to account for human knowledge.

Kant was notoriously awoken from what he termed his “dogmatic slumber” [1] by reading David Hume, who had written in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. … If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

The second part of the quote makes it clear that Hume, in turn, was reacting to the philosophical excesses of the Schoolmen, the medieval logicians who attempted to discover truths about the world by sheer power of mental analysis — an approach that, to be fair, goes back at the least to Plato himself, who was himself impressed by the effectiveness of mathematics in arriving at conclusions with certainty, and thought that the task of philosophy was to do likewise when it came to its own spheres of interest.

Why am I reminding you of all this? Because I am now convinced that we are witnessing a resurgence of what I call radical empiricism, the sort of thing that we thought we had left behind once Kant came onto the scene, and which, frankly, not even good ‘ol Hume would have endorsed.

Recently, here at Scientia Salon I published three essays — two by Robert Nola [2] and one by Coel Hellier [3] — that epitomize radical empiricism, more so in Hellier’s than in Nola’s case, I might add. Interestingly, Nola is a philosopher and Hellier a scientist, and indeed it is known by now that “scientism” — which is the attitude that results from radical empiricism — is being championed by a number of scientists (e.g., Lawrence Krauss [4], Neil deGrasse Tyson [5]) and philosophers (James Ladyman and Don Ross [6], Alex Rosenberg [7]).

Clearly, I find myself puzzled and bewildered by this state of affairs. As someone who has practiced science for a quarter century and then has gone back to graduate school to switch to philosophy full time I have a rather unusual background that, I think, makes me appreciate where radical empiricists come from, and yet which also precludes me from buying into their simplistic worldview.

In the remainder of this essay, then, I will try to do the following:

  1. Sketch out what I see are the logical moves attempted by radical empiricists;
  2. Show why they don’t work;
  3. Explain why this is more than an academic debate, and certainly more than “just semantics.”

Radical empiricists’ moves in logical space, and why they don’t work

My, by now, extensive readings of and conversations with radical empiricists have unearthed a number of standard moves they tend to make. I will briefly discuss six of them. Two obvious moves are (i) the use of an over-extensive definition of science and the assertion that other valuable disciplines — particularly (ii) logic and math — are “ultimately based” on empirical facts. Since radical empiricists do not seem to value (except for some degree of forced lip service when challenged) any other kind of inquiry or method of understanding (say, philosophy, literature, or the arts), it then follows that science really is all we should care about. It is as if they collapsed Hume’s already narrow distinction above between relations of ideas and matters of facts, arguing that the former are really a version of the latter anyway.

The concept of science, of course, has changed over time. The term did not actually exist as indicating a particular approach to knowledge of the world until recently [8]. Arguably, Aristotle (but not Plato!) was doing science, and so were some of the pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly the atomists. After the Renaissance, “natural philosophy” began to separate itself from philosophy more broadly construed, and finally a number of individual sciences became independent during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (most recently psychology, which was still a branch of philosophy until about the time of William James).

But modern defenders of radical empiricism don’t get to help themselves to the fact that what we understand by science has changed over the centuries, because if they did they might have to concede that, really, historically speaking it’s all philosophy.

Where could we turn for help, then? I’d say the dictionary, to get us started. Dictionaries are funny things. They play both a descriptive and a prescriptive role. They are descriptive of how — at any particular moment — a given culture uses a certain term; that, of course, can and does change over sufficiently long periods of time. But dictionaries are also prescriptive in the sense that, within a reasonably short time frame, they also tell us how we ought to deploy those terms. One doesn’t get to arbitrarily redefine words to suit one’s own ideological position or personal inclinations.

So, what are the dictionary definitions of science, mathematics and logic? Here they are (from my built-in Apple Dictionary):

science, the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. (Interestingly, the same dictionary also provides this alternative meaning: “knowledge of any kind,” but labels it as archaic.)

mathematics, the abstract study of number, quantity, and space.

logic, reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity.

It ought to be clear even from these definitions — which are congruent with the vast majority of the specialized literature on the philosophy of science, of math, and of logic — that mathematics is distinct from but akin to logic, and that both of them are very distinct from (although very useful to) science. Hume was onto something, after all.

As I mentioned, the most common refrain from radical empiricists when faced with the above is that math and logic “ultimately” are rooted in empirical knowledge, a recurring example being that we believe that 1+1=2 because we can see that if we put side by side two objects of the same kind we get a total of two objects of the same kind. Another example is that standard practices in logic, say modus ponens [9] are adopted because they “work” in the real world.

Both responses miss the mark because they subtly but surely change the conversation. The first example tells us at most that human beings began to think about abstract objects prompted by elementary empirical observations. But the question at hand is not how mathematical reasoning originated in the Pleistocene, it is what kind of mental activity is modern mathematics. And much of it has nothing whatsoever to do with empirical groundings of any sort. Yes, math is deployed as a tool in science and in all sorts of other applications, but there are huge swaths of mathematical territory that neither describe anything in the world nor are pursued by mathematicians for any practical reason at all.

As far as logic is concerned, a similar reasoning holds there too. And the example of the utility of modus tollens is another red herring that derails the conversation: the question isn’t whether some principles or methods of logic are useful and therefore employed in other areas of application. Of course they are. But logicians — just like mathematicians — are concerned with the formal structure and internal coherence of their constructs, not with whether they do or do not map onto the real world. Many of those structures do not, in fact, map onto the world. When they do, it is only because the world as it actually is does not contain logical contradictions and mathematical inconsistencies, so math and logic are bound to describe the real world together with countless other hypothetical ones (this is true quite irrespective of the ontological question concerning abstract objects, i.e., regardless of whether one is inclined to be a Platonist or not).

Another common move employed by radical empiricists is to (iii) deny the existence of a priori knowledge. It cannot exist, because otherwise they’d have to admit that science (understood as an essentially empirical enterprise) isn’t the source of all knowledge. The most sophisticated of the new wave of radical empiricists sooner or later will cite W.V.O. Quine’s famous rejection of the difference between analytic (a priori, by reasoning) / synthetic (a posteriori, by observation) truths in his paper, “Two dogmas of empiricism” [10]. But I bet that a good number of them have not actually read it, and even more likely that they are not aware of the criticism it got and of the significant amount of backtracking Quine himself had to do throughout the rest of his career.

You see, Quine made ample room for a priori truths in his “rejection” by acknowledging two things: the special status of mathematics as a type of science because it has applications in science (but see above for why this is irrelevant), and the fact that tautological statements (the famous “bachelors are unmarried men” kind of thing) are indeed examples of analytic truths, but turn out to be “epistemically insignificant” according to Quine’s judgment [11]. Well, that’s his opinion, and given that much of logic and math are built on tautologies, a very debatable opinion at that.

A better example of what Quine was talking about are equations such as F = ma from Newtonian mechanics. He thought that this may look like an analytic truth, specifically a definition (hence tautological) of force. But in fact the equation is only true within a specific empirically-based theory of the natural world, its truth not deriving from mathematical reasoning per se. I have no qualms with that, but acknowledging this is a far cry from saying that there are no a priori truths and no difference between synthetic and analytic statements.

Radical empiricists’ next move is to (iv) point out that science uses the same fundamental tools — observation and reason — that we all deploy in everyday life whenever we want to know anything at all. This is just as true as it is utterly uninteresting. It would be surprising, in fact, if science as a human epistemic activity were to somehow transcend the basic intellectual faculties of our species and operate sui generis (just as it would be equally surprising if there were a philosophical method that was entirely distinct from normal human reasoning). Of course doing math, logic, philosophy, art, literature, navigating the New York City subway system, and plumbing use facts (whenever appropriate) which are analyzed by reason. Nevertheless there are tons of interesting distinctions among all those activities, distinctions that are lost by the quest for what I have come to call “explanatory monism,” the obsession with a one-size-fits-all epistemology. Epistemic pluralism is much more interesting and fecund, not to mention more accurately reflective of actual human practice.

The next move, then, is a partial retreat on the previous one, and goes something like this: (v) there are no sharp distinctions between the mentioned activities, so there is no principled way to distinguish among them. To which I can only reply in two ways: there is no sharp distinction separating a helicopter, a jumbo jet and a Saturn rocket, as they are all flying machines. But if you think there are no interesting differences among them you are sorely mistaken. Also, anyone seriously arguing that philosophy, math, logic and, say, biology, are more or less the same thing has clearly not read a single technical paper in more than one of those disciplines.

There is one more defense of radical empiricism, rooted in a kind of greedy reductionism: (vi) the idea that “ultimately” whatever it is we are interested in (poetry, art, mathematics) is made of physical matter or done by beings made of physical matter, so that it all comes down to neuroscience or, if the radical empiricist is particularly bold, to quantum mechanics.

This, again, is a move predicated on shifting the discourse without apparently realizing that one has done so. The issue isn’t what something is made of (ontology), but rather how we may best proceed in understanding it (epistemology). Epistemologists understand very well that for any particular problem X there is a usually small number of levels of analysis that are most informative and appropriate in order to understand X. These can be located one or two (loosely defined) levels of complexity below or above X itself, but the explanatory returns taper off very quickly after that. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you want to understand the population dynamics of a species of plants, for instance belonging to an invasive species (this comes straight out of my work as an empirical scientist, as you might have guessed). It is of no use to point out that plants, “ultimately” are made of quarks. A quantum mechanical theory of population dynamics — even if possible in principle — is never going to be developed and it wouldn’t help anyway because it would be far too complicated (and unnecessarily so) for a human to comprehend. Instead, the population biologist looks at population genetics (circa one level of complexity below that of organismal biology) and at ecosystem theory (circa one level of complexity above).

Similarly, it is a good bet that to understand economies one needs to operate at the level of economics as autonomous science, plus at the levels of, say, human sociology and psychology. Neuroscience is not likely to be helpful, because it would be too detailed for the problem at hand, even though of course economies are inventions of the human mind, and of course the human mind is the result of the activity of the brain, and of course the brain is made of neurons and other cell types. If you are not convinced, try to go even further down the hierarchy of complexity. How likely is it that we could develop a useful theory of economies based on molecular biology (after all, the brain is made of molecules!)? What about fundamental chemistry (those molecules are made of atoms!)? And so forth until we get to the single wave function that allegedly represents the entire universe.

So, a crucial reason to maintain distinctions among fields of inquiry — even when acknowledging bridges, cross-pollination, and similarities — is that ultimate reductionism will always be a losing epistemic proposition, even if one agrees with the ontological statement that everything is made of quarks (or strings, or wave functions).

Why bother?

I find all of the above intrinsically interesting as an example of intellectual debate about matters of proper definitions, conceptual understanding of different human epistemic activities and so forth. In other words, as a professional philosopher this kind of discussion represents a worthwhile venture into the philosophy of science and in epistemology. But there are far more practical reasons why the assault of the radical empiricists ought to be resisted.

Two reasons in particular are of concern to me: the damage being done to non-scientific disciplines, and the damage potentially to be suffered by science itself.

For years now the humanities and any non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields have been in retreat in colleges throughout the world, especially in the US. This retreat is the result of a number of factors, perhaps foremost among them the increasing importation of business-style models into academia and the resulting conviction that if studying a given discipline doesn’t have an immediate payoff in terms of employment then it is not worth studying. This is a false and perniciously instrumental view of higher (and lower, really) education, which has the potential to undermine people’s ability to develop into cultured human beings capable of reflecting on what they do, how they do it , of appreciating all aspects of life (not just jobs and livelihood), and of making informed decisions as members of a democratic polity.

The aggressiveness of radical empiricists and their dismissal of non-scientific fields exacerbates this problem, and in my mind, therefore contributes to undermining the very fabric of our democracy and to decreasing the quality of our life.

This may sound like “defending the turf,” and in a sense it is. But some turfs are worth defending against an all-encompassing cultural imperialism that risks to flatten the intellectual landscape in the name of Science (notice the capital S). And no, I’m not at all coming at this from the point of view of mystical or theological woo in constant entrenchment against science — as I hope is abundantly clear by the body of my writings.

The second worry may seem specious, but I think it is just as important to appreciate. I think that an over-emphasis on the powers and overall reach of Science will, in the long run, do harm to actual, good science. We are already facing a public that is increasingly unwilling to trust scientific findings (just think of the widespread rejection of the theory of evolution or the notion of climate change, or of the uncritical acceptance of a non existent causal link between autism and vaccines, to mention just a few examples). The more scientists are seen as arrogantly dismissive of any other dimension of human experience the more this distrust will grow and fester. And science, the real science done in countless laboratories and university centers across the globe, is just too precious an achievement of humanity to let it be damaged by an emotional reaction to the loud, radical statements of an overbearing but comparatively small number of highly visible public figures.

Isaac Asimov famously said that “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” Indeed, but we don’t get wisdom from science alone.

_____

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

[1] As he put it, in Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

[2] Scientism: ‘Yippee’ or ‘Boo-sucks’? — Part I and Part II, by Robert Nola, Scientia Salon, 18 and 19 August 2014.

[3] Defending scientism: mathematics is a part of science, by Coel Hellier, Scientia Salon, 21 August 2014.

[4] Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, by Massimo Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 25 April 2012.

[5] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 12 May 2014.

[6] James Ladyman on Metaphysics, Rationally Speaking podcast, 9 September 2012.

[7] Is science all you need?, by Massimo Pigliucci, The Philosopher’s Magazine, 2nd Quarter of 2012.

[8] The very word “scientist” was coined by philosopher William Whewell in 1833, in response to a challenge issued by poet S.T. Coleridge.

[9] Modus ponens.

[10] Two dogmas of empiricism, by W.V.O. Quine.

[11] Quine, W.V.O. (1991) Two Dogmas in Retrospect. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21:265-274, see p. 271.

315 thoughts on “The return of radical empiricism

  1. I am not sure, what real use pure logic is, if not applied to empirical facts. Maybe philosophy is just a more intelligent replacement for religion.

    Well, philosophy is at least a lot of intellectual fun, so it cannot be all that useless.

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  2. In relation to the population dynamics question, there seems to be a rather obvious issue in relation to reductionism.

    Even if one could computationally model a relevant system using quantum mechanics, it seems to me that they would still need to employ the same methods of population dynamics as used in standard population dynamics. That is, although the quantum mechanical simulation provides the equivalent of an experiment realisation, you still need other (biological) methods to extract the relevant information, which are not themselves derived from the QM equations. Also, no matter how good a simulation, you learn nothing about the concept of a constitution or democracy (unless you are simulating an AI who can provide some good hints :> ).

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  3. Massimo,

    Perhaps there’s another detrimental effect on science itself.
    If you don’t make the distinction between mathematical and scientific truths, you’re keeping the door wide open for all kinds of mathematical model-building in science, in which these models aren’t evaluated by prediction, observation, experiment etc. but by purely formal and mathematical criteria like coherence and (perhaps) “mathematical beauty”.

    Don’t know if everybody would find this detrimental, though.

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  4. “I am not sure, what real use pure logic is, if not applied to empirical facts.”
    What do you mean by “real use” and what do you mean by applying to empirical facts exactly?

    If someone holds two views on two different matters, one of which you find disagreeable, logic can show you if the person has a contradiction in their positions. If their view implies a contradiction, you can confront them with it. That seems to me to be a real use of logic. That can be applied to ontological positions, epistemological positions, ethical positions, or other of the various convictions a person has that arise in everyday arguments. Philosophy should be informed by science, but science can only address arguments that make empirical predictions. To make a parallel to an argument on the rationally speaking podcast, this is shown by Julia Galef’s point about bestiality and eating animals both being without consent (if you recall it). You can bring science to bear on the issue, by looking at factors of pain and cruelty, but ultimately what is the case these factors doesn’t dictate what you think aught to be the case.

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  5. A great summary, Prof Pigliucci!
    I would add another point, informed by the history of ideas: Those philosophers and scientists (mainly of the Vienna Circle and its sphere of influence) who are sometimes accused of being radical empiricists were far more nuanced than the likes of Mr Hellier and the people you mention in your article. Rudolf Carnap famously wrote of metaphysics that those with an inclination for metaphysical thinking should write poems or symphonies, instead of writing treatises. Not surprisingly, Carnap approved of Friedrich Nietzsche’s methodology, which used treatises for ‘analytical’ and historical topics while using literature and poetry for metaphysical, speculative, and moral topics (this is, aguably, a simplification of Nietzsche’s approach, but the general idea appealed to Carnap).
    This is not a cosmetic distinction: For Carnap and his colleagues, different questions require different methods of answering. All questions about matters of fact (questions about the world) are the purview of empirical science (or, in the case of the New York subway system, of empirical common sense). Whoever tries to answer them using different methodologies is misguided at best and a charlatan at worst.
    But this demarcation – difficult and fuzzy as it may be – does not only validate science. It also signifies the realm of existential questions which cannot be answered by empirical means. To quote Feyerabend: “What use are elementary particles [he means scientific knowledge of elementary particles] to me when I am in despair and want to hang myself?” His example is extreme (quite appropriate for his personality), but to the point. Answers to existential questions as well as value-judgements may be informed by knowledge about matters of fact (and thus, science), but never determined by them. The answer to Feyerabend’s question is, of course, ‘none at all’.
    This is why the distinction is significant. Not only because we want to have a means to distinguish science from mathematics and logic, or to ‘keep science pure’, or to defeat the many charlatans, religious and political. But because we need to acknowledge that, as Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, “even if *all possible* scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” I would substitute “not been touched at all” with “not been solved at all”, because, as you often wrote, our knowledge about the world does, in fact, inform our existential choices and value-judgements. Yet, when it comes to being human and living life we are, in the end, alone.

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  6. Massimo, thank you for this amazing post. I completely agree with all of it, and I’m working on a text (an elucidation and defense of a priori knowledge, as it is discussed today by people like Bonjour, Bealer, Casullo and others) that I’ll try to submit to be published here. For now I just want to indicate this draft by Yablo: http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/courses/factual/papers/YabloNominalist.pdf

    Perhaps you already knew it, but Yablo argues very concisely (and to my opinion convincingly) against the indispensability argument, which undercuts the reason (perhaps the main reason) for thinking that math and logic must really be empirical at the end of the day.

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  7. Thanks MP for bringing up Hume’s Fork. I mentioned it in a comment on Coel’s piece and I been thinking about his reply.

    After reading Coel’s piece, the objections and his replies to the objections, I think what he basically claiming has more plausibility than what at first appears. 

    Some thoughts: 

    1: empirical justification: ultimate and proximate. 

    I think the radical empiricist can possibly reply to Hume’s fork by making a distinction between ultimate justification and proximate justification. 

    Ultimate justification is that all knowledge ultimately rests upon experience, in terms of generalisations from experience and that whatever generalisations or axioms postulated must be consistent with experience.

    In other words, as Coel argued the axioms of math and logic are ultimately justified by firstly, generalisations from experience and secondly that they work or are consistent with experience. 

    Proximate justification: familiar a priori justification, self-evident, necessary and all that jazz. 

    So, on this view mathematics falls under the umbrella of science. It’s a bit like Hong Kong: a different internal system but ultimately answerable in principle to ONE country – Bejing, China.  Math  and logic are “special autonomous zones” but not fully autonomous. 

    Comment: I think this is what Coel is basically saying. His position appears to be coherent (if his description of axiom justification is correct) so at least there is some grounds for saying that math is ultimately empirical. However, due to my limited knowledge I will suspend judgement. 

    2: The analogy: 

    Coel, supports his thesis, it seems to me, by stating that math and science use the same or similar pattern of reasoning. Namely, hypothetico -deductive reasoning, one uses laws one uses axioms. The justification of the hypothesised law and the axioms are by consequences.

    Coel, it seems to me, states that justification for both laws and axioms are in whole or in part by empirical consequences being consistent with the axiom or law.

    Comment: I don’t know enough if this is accurate but surely someone here can point out if the facts support this claim or not. If not, if mathematical axioms are not justified in part or wholly by their consistency with experience this undermines Coel’s claim. I would like to see someone address this.

    3: Companions in Guilt

    If Coel is right in what I claimed in (1) and (2) then he can point out that physics has a similar epistemology in that it works out its claims a priori via deductive reasoning but that such claims don’t meet the gold standard of scientific justification until there is an empirical test. 

    If this is accurate (and I don’t know enough to say that it is) Coel can claim that those who argue that math is FULLY autonomous and not part of science is engaged in special pleading and are inconsistent if they think physics is part of science but math is not. 

    Summary: 

    Philosophy of Mathematics is not a subject I am greatly versed in, so I am agnostic, but given the level of opposition to the radical empiricists, I think they have a burden to meet. Coel, has at least put some claims on the table that I think have not been fully addressed – namely what I wrote in (1) (2) and (3) so I would like to see someone address them. 

    In conclusion I would ask this: can we give necessary and sufficient conditions for what is science and what is not? If we can, can we address the place of mathematics and logic in science by three possible categories:

    A: Full autonomy thesis: mathematics is fully and completely epistemically separate ultimately (axioms) and proximately (theorems).

    B: Partial Autonomy thesis: math is partly epistemically justified by empiricism (perhaps in the way I suggested in (1) but some, many, most, of its claims are justifed a priori.

    C: Depedency thesis: All mathemtical claims (axiom and theorem) are justifed by empiricism.

    I don’t think anyone is defending C, so that leaves A and B. 

    So, which is it then? 

    P.S

    To MP (Original Poster) 

    You bring up Hume’s Fork and I am sure you are aware of the criticism that it is self-defeating (what category of knoweldge does it fall into?). My question is: any ideas on solving this apparent problem? Would love to hear what you think.

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  8. Hi Massimo,
    That’s a nicely written article in that it clearly presents a lot of the issues. Being one of those radical-empiricist, scientistic bogey men, it won’t surprise anyone that I’m not in entire agreement.

    Early on:

    Since radical empiricists do not seem to value (except for some degree of forced lip service when challenged) any other kind of inquiry or method of understanding (say, philosophy, literature, or the arts), it then follows that science really is all we should care about.

    And late on:

    The aggressiveness of radical empiricists and their dismissal of non-scientific fields exacerbates this problem, …

    A scientistic view that sees a wide range of fields as encompassed within the broad enterprise of science is the very opposite of a “dismissal” of those fields. To a scientismist, calling something “science” is laudatory, not derogatory or dismissive. One should also emphasize that scientism is only about the fundamentals of how we acquire knowledge, and that is only one aspect of what humans “should care about” or do care about.

    But modern defenders of radical empiricism don’t get to help themselves to the fact that what we understand by science has changed over the centuries, because if they did they might have to concede that, really, historically speaking it’s all philosophy.

    Yes, you’re right. It is indeed all philosophy. (Does the label really matter?)

    But the question at hand is not how mathematical reasoning originated in the Pleistocene, it is what kind of mental activity is modern mathematics. […] the question isn’t whether some principles or methods of logic are useful […] logicians — just like mathematicians — are concerned with the formal structure and internal coherence of their constructs, not with whether they do or do not map onto the real world.

    You are entirely right in what mathematicians and logicians are doing. But your article doesn’t address a further question: why are they using the axioms that they do? What justifies those axioms? Those are the question that the “radical empiricists” are asking.

    When [mathematical/logical structures map onto the world] it is only because the world as it actually is does not contain logical contradictions and mathematical inconsistencies, so math and logic are bound to describe the real world …

    Have you ruled out the possibility of internally coherent logical/mathematical systems that do not map to our world? If so, how? Isn’t it rather interesting that our world “does not contain logical contradictions and mathematical inconsistencies” and thus does conform to our logical/mathematical systems, and might tat fact be related to the question in my previous paragraph?

    Radical empiricists’ next move is to (iv) point out that science uses the same fundamental tools — observation and reason — that we all deploy in everyday life whenever we want to know anything at all. This is just as true as it is utterly uninteresting.

    Oh. Well, some of us find the point to be of some interest!

    Nevertheless there are tons of interesting distinctions among all those activities …

    Sure, agreed. “Explanatory monism” is not a denial that there are interesting distinctions between areas of knowledge, which all have their own styles. Plenty of those “radical empiricists” spend their lives being interested in the different areas of knowledge.

    … a kind of greedy reductionism … it all comes down to neuroscience or, if the radical empiricist is particularly bold, to quantum mechanics.

    I (and I expect most “radical empiricists”) actually agree with everything you write in the paragraphs after that. There are of course emergent phenomena, and I entirely agree that “for any particular problem X there is a usually small number of levels of analysis that are most informative and appropriate in order to understand X. These can be located one or two (loosely defined) levels of complexity below or above X itself, but the explanatory returns taper off very quickly after that”.

    But, the scientism doctrine of the unity of knowledge (following from epistemological monism) also says that each of these levels ties together seamlessly with the one above it and the one below it. Thus a proper explanation will tie together seamlessly and equivalently the explanations at level N, and at level N-1, and at level N+1.

    This contrasts with a doctrine that the explanation at level N+1 can be considered in isolation, as detached from levels N and N-1, and thus that it is legitimate to not ask about how a N+1-level explanation is implemented at level N.

    Thus, scientism is not a rejection of emergent phenomenon, nor of anything you say in those paragraphs, and nor is it a demand that the explanation and enquiry must be conducted at level N-5. It is instead a rejection of concepts that are held to be “irreducible and ineliminable” at level N+1, where one doesn’t ask the question of how it meshes with levels N and N-1, and regards those questions as improper.

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  9. >>I am not sure, what real use pure logic is, if not applied to empirical facts. Maybe philosophy is just a more intelligent replacement for religion.

    Anyway, regarding Massimo’s post:

    >>For years now the humanities and any non-STEM…fields have been in retreat in colleges throughout the world, especially in the US….The aggressiveness of radical empiricists and their dismissal of non-scientific fields exacerbates this problem, and in my mind, therefore contributes to undermining the very fabric of our democracy and to decreasing the quality of our life.

    As much as I’m against the radical empiricists and the anti-philosophy types, I think it’s unfair to say that these people are excaserbating the problems you mention (incidentally, whether they are exacerbating the problem or not surely IS an empirical question to some extent, so we shouldn’t make such an accusation with some evidence.) I don’t think I’ve ever sees these people dismiss the value of literature, poetry, music, art, or languages. Clearly there is no “competition” between what scientists are up to and, say, the department that teaches students how to speak French, music theory, or the latest trends in Brazilian literature. Where radical empiricists *do* seem dismissive of other fields is where they *do* sense some degree of competition – e.g., when philosophers or postmodernists in literature departments start making grand statements about the nature of knowledge, causation, the fundamental structure of the world, and even the nature of science itself, that’s where the radical empiricists say, “Hey, nobody knows this stuff better than we do!”

    So I would suspect that philosophy (and perhaps some of the ‘theoretical’ aspects of literature departments) are the only non-science fields truly threatened by the radical empiricist attitude.

    By the way, let’s not lose sight of the fact that American college students aren’t so hot about STEM subjects either. Check out, for example, the top 10 college majors according to the Princeton review:

    http://www.princetonreview.com/college/top-ten-majors.aspx

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  10. One harmonious intersection of scientists and artists is computational creativity (“a multidisciplinary endeavor that is located at the intersection of the fields of artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and the arts”).

    The time when machines could only give answers and never ask questions is coming to an end and giving rise to new creative collaborations between people and machines. This exhibition of digital artworks by European artists surveys a number of these new collaborative methods and contemplates the philosophical, artistic and practical questions that surround existing and future possibilities of machine creativity.

    http://computationalcreativity.net/iccc2014/you-me-it-art-exhibition/

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  11. Oops, I meant to write a reply toy’s post:

    >>>>I am not sure, what real use pure logic is, if not applied to empirical facts. Maybe philosophy is just a more intelligent replacement for religion.

    The same could be said about basic scientific research that isn’t applied to engineering or technology.

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  12. I’d argue beyond logic itself, the use of language to shape thought, including logical argumentation, is an argument for a priori thought. No, I don’t believe in Platonic ideals, nor do I believe in “modularity” of the mind for language, at least not in the way or degree Chomsky presented it. But, we do seem to have evolved some ability to have heritable ideas about concepts. And, it’s too bad that neither of our two essays on linguistics tackled anything like this, either.

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  13. The terminology in the above threw me for a bit of a loop. You’re not really talking about “radical empiricism” — which is a position that William James articulated — but about the return of Humean empiricism, coupled with a fairly strong dose of “scientism.” Is the use of the phrase “radical empiricism” in the above your own choice, or a terminological move of the authors you are criticizing? In either case, I’d encourage you to reconsider its usage in the above, as it strikes me as inviting serious misunderstanding.

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  14. I wouldn’t consider myself, by any stretch, a radical empiricist. I see, for example, great value in making distinctions between fields and even in distinctions between the types of cognitive activities engaged by them.

    The problem is that certain kinds of *philosophical* distinctions lead us astray. In this case, the idea of some kind of “pure” a-priori realm of thought tends to lead us toward dualism. And I think the kind of dualism it leads us toward is more insidious for being tacit – for being subtly entailed by our way of thinking about epistemology – than it would be if we were straight-up Cartesian dualists.

    “What is the nature of our access to knowledge of the world?” This is the conundrum that Kant and Hume were consumed with. And it’s only really an intractable conundrum if dualism is (however subtly) implied by our way of thinking about the problem. The solution, then, requires both physical monism and thinking about human beings as “embedded” physical processes in the world.

    The sad things about this (for some) are: A) that monism is distasteful because it erases distinctions; and B) that it implies that studying the physical processes of cognition are relevant to thinking about epistemology, which is distasteful for territorial (and other more complicated) reasons. I believe both of these are misunderstandings.

    Physical monism does not need to erase distinctions – it just forces us to clarify what those distinctions are really about. In the present case, we can acknowledge that there’s a difference between “reasoning” and “induction”, while keeping in mind that both cognitive processes take place in the same physical domain using the same machinery. Neither one is exalted to a “pure” realm.

    That studying the processes of cognition informs epistemology does not co-opt epistemology for science. It is actually consistent with a physicalist philosophical position. And “studying physical cognition” does not mean “doing fMRIs”. Cognition can be studied at various levels of explanation. And I’d argue that the intersection of cognitive science and philosophy is currently one of the most productive and least contentious. You won’t hear cognitive sciences dissing philosophy in the same way that physicists do.

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  15. This is all very well as far as the rejection of “radical empiricism” is concerned. I hope that the examples of the weed and of economics may help some of the it’s-all-neuroscience people appreciate the need for varying levels of analysis.

    However:

    Just as I would like “radical empiricists” to reconsider the claim that math and (everything that they see as useful about) philosophy are really empirical science because empirical science uses some mathematical and philosophical tools, so I would like you to reconsider the claim that addressing an empirical question (say, whether gods exist or not) is really philosophy the moment science uses a tool also used in philosophy to do so.

    Really it seems quite simple to me: Is it the kind of knowledge from the second prong of Hume’s fork? Then we are dealing with the realm of empirical science, even if it uses tools that somebody with “philosopher” or even “monk” on their office door had originally proposed, because if you don’t allow science those tools it couldn’t BE science.

    Which also brings me to your recurring example of plumbing. If we say, following Hume, that there is (a) knowledge about abstract ideas and (b) knowledge about matters of fact, then plumbing and the subway system are firmly in the second as opposed to the first area, and they use the same epistemological approach as science. Of course neither the plumber nor the passenger are professional scientists, but the fact that somebody adding up their expenses isn’t a professional research mathematician doesn’t stop us from recognising that a mathematical activity is going on either.

    So yes, there is knowledge that isn’t science, obviously. But the attempt to claim parts of the one prong for the other sometimes seems to be made from both sides.

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  16. “The aggressiveness of radical empiricists and their dismissal of non-scientific fields exacerbates this problem, and in my mind, therefore contributes to undermining the very fabric of our democracy and to decreasing the quality of our life.”

    Yes! Let the moralization begin! *plays mortal kombat theme* Massimo, your argument here sounds a lot like the argument that accepting Darwinian evolution means accepting social Darwinism. It just doesn’t follow that the truth of the matter of the relationship between math and science (namely that math is a branch of science, as the “radical empricists” claim) entails any sort of “flattening” of the diversity of thought.

    “We are already facing a public that is increasingly unwilling to trust scientific findings (just think of the widespread rejection of the theory of evolution or the notion of climate change, or of the uncritical acceptance of a non existent causal link between autism and vaccines, to mention just a few examples). The more scientists are seen as arrogantly dismissive of any other dimension of human experience the more this distrust will grow and fester.”

    This is all very much reminding me of Pinker’s article: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities

    Accepting a monist epistemological ground for human understanding does not mean denying the humanities or philosophy or mathematics by any means. I don’t know why you see this situation as zero-sum, but it certainly isn’t and you’ve never seemed to think so in the past. Isn’t that what naturalism is anyway? A monist theory of the world? Watching Sean Carroll’s “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference (where you were present) I saw no contradiction between accepting levels of analysis as you highlighted in this article and a complete naturalistic/scientific understanding of the universe. What am I missing here?

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  17. Hi Massimo,

    I greatly enjoyed this essay and found it to be a wonderful exposition of your position and your issues with radical empricism. I even agreed with most of it! I particularly appreciated your impassioned defence of the importance of treating science as a separate human endeavour.

    That said, I’m not sure you’re being entirely fair to Coel and his ilk.

    I can illustrate how I see the dispute with a “cartoon” sketch of the same kind of thing

    Neutral:

    Coel: Dogs are like cats because they are each furry and have sharp teeth!
    Massimo: Dogs are not like cats because dogs bark and cats mew!

    Coel’s perspective:

    Coel: Dogs and cats are just different varieties of domestic carnivora
    Massimo: Dogs and cats are not the same thing! Dogs bark and cats mew!

    Massimo’s perspective:

    Coel: Dogs are a kind of cat because they are furry and have sharp teeth like cats.
    Massimo: Dogs are not cats! Dogs bark and cats mew!

    I agree with you Massimo, because I think this dispute is more like the depiction of your perspective than the depiction of Coel’s because science has a specific meaning which does not agree with Coel’s usage. However, I can see where Coel is coming from too and it’s really not that unreasonable a place.

    But the question at hand is not how mathematical reasoning originated in the Pleistocene, it is what kind of mental activity is modern mathematics.

    That depends on who is dictating the question. It seems to me that Coel is interested in pointing out the empirical origins of mathematics and similar disciplines. Since this post is largely a reaction to positions such as Coel’s, I’m not sure that the question is what you think it is. Coel’s project is not to deny that there are differences between mathematics and biology (who could take such a position seriously?) but to point out that there are similarities.

    Many of those structures do not, in fact, map onto the world.

    But they are nevertheless founded on elements of our experience. All mathematics depends on logic of some kind, and logic, Coel can argue, is ultimately a product of empirical trial and error. This of course makes science so broad as to be useless as a distinct term, but Coel has repeatedly stated that he is not tied to any particular label. He’s happy to call it all scientia, and his point is that no part of scientia is entirely divorced from empiricism, and it is this empirical basis that justifies the whole lot of it. So far, I don’t think this point has been refuted.

    I think your answer to scientistic move (iv) misses the point. Their aim is to unify all correct human reasoning, in what you call explanatory monism. They are not necessarily tied to any particular label. They prefer “science” only because science is the most robust route to knowledge and so should arguably be used as a model for all knowledge-seeking where possible. But Coel and others are amenable to using the term “scientia” instead so I don’t see a problem here. Since you yourself see the similarities between different varieties of scientia (and evidently support using the term scientia as a catch-all term), I don’t think your position is substantially different from Coel’s. Again, it would be a misunderstanding of the scientistic position to think that they want to erode all distinctions entirely. They do not.

    In conclusion, I think we ought to agree that:
    1) It is not completely indefensible to suggest that there is a remote empirical basis for all knowledge.
    2) There are certain robust ways of seeking knowledge, and that we can adopt “scientia” as an umbrella encompassing all the fields that use these

    If those points are settled, it seems to me that most of the dispute resolves, leaving perhaps only the debate about whether there actually is a remote empirical basis for all knowledge — a point you didn’t really engage with substantively in the article, only referring to the fact that it was a controversial view.

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  18. Coel wrote:

    “But, the scientism doctrine of the unity of knowledge (following from epistemological monism) also says that each of these levels ties together seamlessly with the one above it and the one below it. Thus a proper explanation will tie together seamlessly and equivalently the explanations at level N, and at level N-1, and at level N+1.”

    ——————

    Could you provide one example of one law from any science, above the level of biology, that has been reduced to a physical law?

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  19. Biology cannot be reduced to Physics, because it has an ineliminable teleology component to its explanations, at the higher levels of description. Social Sciences cannot be reduced to physics, because of multiple realizability — social science kinds are physically heterogeneous — as well as the irreducibility of intentionality.

    This means that explanatory monism is false, which means that their “aim to unify all correct human reasoning” cannot be fulfilled.

    When anyone on the other side can show me a single law of a single special science that has been successfully reduced to the law of any physical science, I will take this position seriously. Until then, it’s just one big, baseless assertion.

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  20. Hi Aravis,

    Also, can you explain to us all what “reduction” involves?

    As I see it, “reduction” is the notion that an explanation at an N+1 level meshes seamlessly with one at the N level. In other words, if you knew everything about the N level then you could explain the emergence of phenomena at the N+1 level (though the word “everything” is important there).

    [For example, if you have a good enough low-level model of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans, then the model would produce hurricanes (you would not have to code hurricanes into it), and this is indeed what models of the atmosphere do.]

    A denial of reductionism would be a denial that from complete knowledge of the N level one could predict emergent N+1-level phenomena, and would be the claim that explanations at the N+1 level need have no connection with N-level explanations and could be entirely independent.

    Could you provide one example of one law from any science, above the level of biology, that has been reduced to a physical law?

    You seem to be asking for a reduction of a N-level explanation to an explanation at the N-5 level. As in my reply to Massimo, I agree with him that that would not be a practicable or useful thing to attempt. Even if it could be done (and in principle it perhaps could be done) it would not the sort of thing that humans could assimilate, because human brains don’t work like that.

    On that last point, humans might program a computer in a high-level language, and that can then be translated into machine code, but a human could not assimilate the machine-code version because we don’t have the cognitive tools to do that (a computer, however, can run the machine-code version and produce the high-level behaviour).

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  21. Massimo,
    It seems like you have three concerns here: about the epistemology of logic and mathematics, the scope of science, and people’s attitudes toward fields outside of science.

    On the epistemology of logic and mathematics, it seems like this is one of those philosophical arguments that will go on for the foreseeable future. I think there is a serious argument to be made for logic and math being grounded in foundations that are empirically observable, but I fully recognize that just about any practitioner in either field will insist that, as an ongoing endeavor, they are not engaged in an empirical activity. If there are people who insist otherwise, they are simply ignoring those practitioners.

    On the scope of science, I can’t see any downside to regarding historical methods, good journalism, competent police detective work, and other endeavors as science. To me, a narrow conception of science as only something professional scientists do pointlessly adds an unnecessary mystique to science, one that puts it on a precarious elitist pedestal that it can only fall from when scientists inevitably make human mistakes. When people understand that science is fundamentally about carefully looking at the world, along with interpreting what is seen, they can relate it to what they do in their own lives. Of course professional scientists do it with a higher degree of skill and expertise, but that’s true of any arena where there are amateurs and professionals, such as for example, painting.

    On not valuing endeavors outside of science (whatever one’s conception of its scope), I think the people who do this are simply demonstrating their insularity. It is human nature to regard what we do, or what we are fans of, as the most important thing in the world and what others do, particularly those doing things we don’t understand, as some inferior enterprise. I totally agree that this attitude from (thankfully a minority of) scientists, or their fans, is toxic to science’s public reputation.

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  22. The more scientists are seen as arrogantly dismissive of any other dimension of human experience the more this distrust will grow and fester. And science, the real science done in countless laboratories and university centers across the globe, is just too precious an achievement of humanity to let it be damaged by an emotional reaction to the loud, radical statements of an overbearing but comparatively small number of highly visible public figures.

    I think you have put your finger on a core problem. They have become social critics when their academic expertise does not give them any standing in social fields. They misuse their academic reputation in the pursuit of a social agenda.

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  23. Hi Alexander,

    Just as I would like “radical empiricists” to reconsider the claim that math and (everything that they see as useful about) philosophy are really empirical science because empirical science uses some mathematical and philosophical tools, …

    Just for the record, the claim is not just because empirical science uses maths, its because we see the axioms of maths and logic, the very foundations of those subjects, as derived from empirical experience.

    In all this debate, no-one has seriously countered that claim by pointing to axioms that are clearly unrelated to real-world behaviour and which cannot be regarded as abstractions of real-world behaviour.

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  24. SciSal, you lost me when you credited Kant for distinguishing between empiricism and rationalism. He was hopelessly confused on the topic. He would babble endlessly and opaquely on the all-important distinction between “analytic” and “synthetic”, but then he concluded that “7 + 5 = 12” is synthetic. He also argued that Euclidean geometry was synthetic a priori. These positions are foolish, as if he were stuck in the Pleistocene.

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  25. In the real world of university budgeting, which I have to deal with as a Dept. Head, every day, it is most certainly zero sum. The money will either go to humanities or to STEM.

    When radical empiricist deny the epistemic utility of the arts and humanities, they provide a ready-fire argument to university administrators to take the budgetary axe to them. This is simply reality, as anyone familiar with what’s going on in the university today knows.

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  26. I worry about putting Ladyman and Ross in the same category as the others. Their commitment to “rainforest realism” (i.e. the scale-relativity of ontology) means that they must be epistemic (and indeed ontological) pluralists. So while they are deeply commitment to ontic monism (there are only real patterns) and to epistemic authority of fundamental physics (since only fundamental physics deals with universal real patterns), those commitments becomes so mitigated that, at the end of the day, their ‘scientism’ is pretty near the opposite of what Rosenberg defends under that label.

    To get from their view to full-blooded pluralism, one need only add the following (seemingly innocuous) hypotheses:

    (1) the scale-relativity of ontology depends as much on the representational constraints of the cognitive model that represents the real pattern as it does on the conditions of measurement of that pattern;

    (2) while it is intuitively plausible that there are universal real patterns, we have no reason to believe that fundamental physics is the model of universal real patterns, if fundamental physics is as constrained by cognitive architecture and measurement conditions as all the other sciences.

    I would conjecture that (1) can be grounded in cognitive neuroscience, though I’d have to look elsewhere for the details. Steven Horst at Wesleyan is working on cognitive pluralism now. I finished reading his “Beyond Reduction” (2007) the other day and recommend it quite highly. The compare-and-contrast with ETMG has been interesting.

    A further point of disagreement with Rosenberg thinks that it’s part of the proper job of metaphysics to actually answer ethical and existential questions — except that he thinks that scientism yields a negative answer to most of those questions (“is there free will?” “is there objective morality?” “is there life after death?”). By contrast, I think that Ladyman and Ross would see that as a kind of “strong metaphysics” that they follow van Fraassen in rejecting. Perhaps they would say that those questions are meaningless; at any rate metaphysics has nothing to say about them. But as the mutual incomprehension between Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle shows, the difference between positivism and mysticism is more one of attitude than of content.

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  27. Hi Aravis,

    Biology cannot be reduced to Physics … This means that explanatory monism is false, which means that their “aim to unify all correct human reasoning” cannot be fulfilled.

    I think we understand explanatory monism differently.

    I’m talking about reductionism. I take the unity of knowledge that Coel seeks to mean that we need to use the same or similar modes of reasoning whether we’re trying to understand physics or biology, modes which are ultimately traceable to empirical roots.

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  28. Chance,
    I saw no contradiction between accepting levels of analysis as you highlighted in this article and a complete naturalistic/scientific understanding of the universe. What am I missing here?

    There is no contradiction but to answer your question – what you are missing is to provide an answer to Massimo’s charge that “the loud, radical statements of an overbearing but comparatively small number of highly visible public figures.” are harmful.

    This is not a reply:

    Yes! Let the moralization begin! *plays mortal kombat theme*

    Try doing better than that.

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  29. Hi SocraticGadfly & Massimo,

    I’m guessing Gadfly’s comment about a one-trick pony was a misinterpretation of the three “cartoon” exchanges about cats and dogs.

    To clarify, these are not one continuous conversation with Massimo mindlessly repeating the same points. They are intended to be three distinct analogies drawn from three different perspectives — a neutral perspective, Coel’s and Massimo’s. As I explained, I actually think that the interpretation which is most charitable to Massimo is the most accurate. Certainly these analogies are not intended to criticise Massimo (or Coel for that matter). I’m only trying to illustrate how there are several ways to see the disagreement.

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  30. DM,
    It seems to me that Coel is interested in pointing out the empirical origins of mathematics and similar disciplines.

    No, Coel is making a much broader and more radical claim, that science is part of mathematics. He used that statement to buttress his claim.

    He also said:
    I have argued that all human knowledge is empirical and that there are no “other ways of knowing.

    No other ways of knowing! Really? His radical claims go far beyond your watered down version.

    In conclusion, I think we ought to agree that:“, etc, etc.

    The point you miss here is that Massimo is not replying just to Coel, he is replying to the general Scientism movement. The most articulate spokesman for Scientism is Alee Rosenberg and he spells out his radical version of Scientism here: http://onthehuman.org/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/

    Massimo specifically references Alex Rosenberg.

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  31. Hi Aravis,

    Biology cannot be reduced to Physics, because it has an ineliminable teleology component to its explanations, at the higher levels of description.

    That is a highly contentious claim. Most scientists would say that Darwin’s theories do “reduce” biology (= show how biology arises from) to chemistry and thence physics. Indeed, the whole glory of Darwinism is that it eliminates vitalism by unifying biology with the physical world.

    Social Sciences cannot be reduced to physics, because of multiple realizability — social science kinds are physically heterogeneous — as well as the irreducibility of intentionality.

    Your claim of the irreducibility of intentionality is little more than a claim, and is again essentially vitalism or dualism. Also, social science kinds being physically heterogeneous does not prevent reducibility. As a comparison, the fact that one can fashion a functionally equivalent tool out of different physical materials is not a rebuttal of reductionism.

    This means that explanatory monism is false, which means that their “aim to unify all correct human reasoning” cannot be fulfilled.

    You are building that claim on little more than assertion.

    When anyone on the other side can show me a single law of a single special science that has been successfully reduced to the law of any physical science …

    Darwinism shows how biology reduces to (= arises from) the physical world.

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  32. Coel,
    In all this debate, no-one has seriously countered that claim

    Both Massimo and Aravis have made devastating objections to your claims. I have summarized the objections in the last comment to that post.

    Your replies have been simply to contradict them without considering the substance of their arguments.

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  33. Hi labnut,

    No, Coel is making a much broader and more radical claim, that science is part of mathematics.

    I think you mean that mathematics is part of science — but he is on record as not being too attached to labels, so he is willing to express his view by saying instead that mathematics is part of scientia.

    No other ways of knowing! Really? His radical claims go far beyond your watered down version.

    I don’t think so. My “watered version” states that Coel is arguing that “there is a (at least a) remote empirical basis for all knowledge”. This is what I think he means when he says that there are no other ways of knowing but the empirical. Coel, you’re certainly welcome to clarify.

    I agree that I have been concentrating exclusively on Coel, but that’s only because Coel is active on this blog and the scientismist I am most familiar with. There may of course be more extreme proponents of scientism who have more problematic views.

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  34. Actually, I think the situation is more like this:

    Coel: Dogs are like cats because they both mew!
    Massimo: Um, no, dogs don’t mew. It doesn’t matter whether you think dogs are like cats, or even if you think dogs are a *kind* of cat. Either way, it’s wrong to say that dogs mew.

    More literally: whether you think math is “like science”, or “a kind of science”, or “a part of science” doesn’t really matter. The fundamental disagreement comes down to the fact that Coel thinks that mathematics is justified empirically, whereas Massimo thinks it isn’t.

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  35. Reductionism has both an explanatory and an ontological side, as has already been painstakingly discussed. Explanatory monism is reductionism about explanation. Explanations in science are done against the backdrop of scientific laws.

    I repeat: Give me one example of a successful reduction of a single law, form a single science, at the biological level or higher.

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  36. Coel wrote:

    As I see it, “reduction” is the notion that an explanation at an N+1 level meshes seamlessly with one at the N level. In other words, if you knew everything about the N level then you could explain the emergence of phenomena at the N+1 level (though the word “everything” is important there).

    ——

    Afraid not. What you’ve just described is–roughly–what is meant by “supervenience”, in that special-science explanations supervene upon physical ones. It is a very weak thesis and believed by most of those who work on the subject to be insufficiently explanatory.

    Reductionism involves reducing the laws of one science to another. This is achieved via “bridge” laws, which describe a relation of identity (or at least, material equivalency), between both the antecedent and consequent of the reduced law and those of the reducing law.

    No one has been able to successfully identify a single such bridge law, between the law of a special science and the law of a physical science. In the absence of such, you have not, in *any* sense, “explained” the “emergent phenomena.” All you have is a vague assertion of supervenience.

    ———

    Coel wrote:

    You seem to be asking for a reduction of a N-level explanation to an explanation at the N-5 level.

    ———–

    Nope. I’d be more than happy if you simply gave me an example of a reduction of, say, physiology, to chemistry or physics.

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  37. Coel wrote:

    Most scientists would say that Darwin’s theories do “reduce” biology (= show how biology arises from) to chemistry and thence physics. Indeed, the whole glory of Darwinism is that it eliminates vitalism by unifying biology with the physical world

    ——————

    Massimo is a biologist and has said explicitly, in our BHTV conversation, that the teleological level of explanation, at higher levels of biological description, is the main obstacle to the reduction of biology to a lower level science. I will take his word as an expert, since I am not an expert in biology (as you are not).

    He also is not a dualist or a vitalist. Your constant refrain of this point reveals that you do not understand what reductionism is or the distinction between epistemic and ontological reductionism.

    ————-

    Coel wrote:

    Also, social science kinds being physically heterogeneous does not prevent reducibility. As a comparison, the fact that one can fashion a functionally equivalent tool out of different physical materials is not a rebuttal of reductionism.

    ——————-

    Wrong. Read Fodor’s “Special Sciences”. As he points out, the vast disjunction of possible physical realizations of a social scientific kind is not itself a kind in any physical science.

    For those who understand what reductionism actually is, this is a direct refutation to the claim of reducibility of social sciences.

    Fodor also is not a dualist or a vitalist. He is explicitly a token physicalist.

    —————————

    Coel wrote:

    Darwinism shows how biology reduces to (= arises from) the physical world.

    ———–

    Not what I asked. When you have an answer to what I asked, I might be able to take your view seriously. Until then, afraid not.

    Just one itty bitty, teensy weensy law. That’s all.

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  38. Hi Aravis,

    Afraid not. What you’ve just described is–roughly–what is meant by “supervenience”, …

    What I described is also what scientists usually mean by “reductionism”. It may be that philosophers and scientists have somewhat different words and concepts about these things.

    Reductionism involves reducing the laws of one science to another. This is achieved via “bridge” laws, …

    This is not a concept that is accepted or widespread in science (and thus not what scientists or scientismists mean by “reductionism” or by “scientism”). Indeed I’ve never encountered a scientist (as opposed to a philosopher) advocate the concept.

    In the absence of such, you have not, in *any* sense, “explained” the “emergent phenomena.”

    I assert that reductionism as I’ve outlined it (what you call supervenience) does indeed explain emergent phenomena, at least it gives the only explanation of them that there is.

    To take my above example, let’s suppose we have a weather-forecasting super-computer which models earth’s air and water at the level of molecules and physical laws about how molecules interact (plus solar radiation, specifics of land-masses, etc). If that computer model then produces hurricanes then it explains hurricanes in the only sense in which there is an explanation.

    (By the way, there is nothing “vague” about that concept.)

    I’d be more than happy if you simply gave me an example of a reduction of, say, physiology, to chemistry or physics.

    Are you asking for that in my sense of the word “reduction” or in yours?

    In my sense, any such explanation would include the biochemistry and the history of evolution which led to the particular biochemical structures. Obviously the latter involves vast amounts of historical contingency, and thus any such account would not be short (nor would a *full* account be possible, given the loss of information over time and thus the fact that we don’t know most of the detailed history of the relevant evolutionary processes).

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  39. What I described is also what scientists usually mean by “reductionism”. It may be that philosophers and scientists have somewhat different words and concepts about these things.

    This is not a concept that is accepted or widespread in science (and thus not what scientists or scientismists mean by “reductionism” or by “scientism”). Indeed I’ve never encountered a scientist (as opposed to a philosopher) advocate the concept.

    —————

    This has become one of your favorite tactics. Rather than concede that you didn’t know something or that you failed to make a key distinction, you simply redefine the words and assert “this is what scientists mean by it.”

    Obviously, we cannot have a productive conversation on these topics, if this is the way they are going to be conducted. You can engage in argument-by-stipulative-definition, but not with me.

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  40. Hi labnut,

    Both Massimo and Aravis have made devastating objections to your claims.

    You could perhaps have noted the second half of the sentence of mine that you quoted. It was fairly specific and limited: “In all this debate, no-one has seriously countered that claim by pointing to axioms that are clearly unrelated to real-world behaviour and which cannot be regarded as abstractions of real-world behaviour.”

    Which axioms of maths do you think are “clearly unrelated to real-world behaviour and which cannot be regarded as abstractions of real-world behaviour”?

    I have summarized the objections in the last comment to that post.

    Noted, but comments on that thread are now closed, so I can’t reply.

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  41. Hi Aravis,

    Your constant refrain of this point reveals that you do not understand what reductionism is …

    Or rather, I, and many scientists, have a rather different conception of it than yours (see above comment).

    For those who understand what reductionism actually is, this is a direct refutation to the claim of reducibility of social sciences.

    It might well be a refutation of reductionism as you understand the term, but that is not the concept of reductionism as advocated by any scientists or scientismists that I’m aware of.

    When you have an answer to what I asked, I might be able to take your view seriously. Until then, afraid not.

    Well, note that my view is not reductionism as you have described it, but reductionism as I outlined it above (and which you call supervenience). I don’t hold to the view that you ascribe to me (and I don’t see it is a necessary part of scientism).

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  42. Hi Clq,

    The fundamental disagreement comes down to the fact that Coel thinks that mathematics is justified empirically, whereas Massimo thinks it isn’t.

    Or, rather, Coel thinks that the *axioms* of maths are justified empirically (the resulting theorems are then justified by reasoning from the axioms, not by empirical means).

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