Science vs Scientism

blinded-by-sciencescientismnew-atheismby Massimo Pigliucci

Here comes another Scientia Salon video, a conversation between Dan Kaufman and myself on the difference between science and scientism. We have covered scientism at the magazine before, featuring both pro and con views [1-5], so I promise to let the issue go for a while after this video (well, until a collection of technical essays on scientism that my colleague Maarten Boudry and I are working on for Chicago Press will come out, so stay tuned). Still, I hope the chat with Dan will be both entertaining and informative.

In the video we covered topics such as quantum mechanics and understanding a dollar bill, what is the point of knowledge, going beyond the Enlightenment, the nature of science (obviously), and whether there are extra-scientific ways of knowing.

_____

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).

Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy.

[1] Spelling out Scientism, A to Z, by John Shook, Scientia Salon, 12 April 2014.

[2] Staking positions amongst the varieties of scientism, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 April 2014.

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

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

[5] The return of radical empiricism, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 August 2014.

91 thoughts on “Science vs Scientism

  1. Excellent discussion, particularly the part regarding token and type physicalism, the reasons why we seek explanations of things, the monistic hangover of the Enlightenment, the metaphysical direction of some theoretical physicists, Ryle’s “wine-tasting method,” and the link between reason, emotion, and understanding. Well done, guys!

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  2. There is so much to consider here, and to agree with. Some items were clearly questionable.

    For example: “It’s all an illusion crowd” was held up as being ridiculous, prima facei. Well, from a neuroscience perspective, that crowd is mostly correct. The problem is their use of the word illusion which automatically presents all kinds of pejorative images to the conscious minds of almost everyone. The phenomenal content of our minds, i.e. 100% of what we are consciously aware of, is 100% constructed from trillions of neurochemical signals. What should one call these phenomena that flit across our mental screens?

    You would be less provocative by referring to the ‘it’s all qualia crowd”. Qualia are 100% subjective codes created in response to the physical events that are occurring in the environment and in the nervous system.

    The use of the term illusion to describe our mental phenomena or quaila is perhaps unfortunate, but it is vastly more accurate than to claim that our qualia are real, accurate and precise reflections of reality.

    The ‘it’s all an illusion crowd” do bring up an important issue identified by scientismists that needs to be incorporated in our ontologies and epistemologies. The metaphysicians, understandably, would want to downplay this issue since it could undercut their faith in ‘delusional’ mental constructs. I say let’s deal with reality in its glorious diversity. 🙂

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  3. I think it was DM who pointed out, regarding that last video, that it would have been more interesting to have two people who disagreed, rather than two people who were agreeing the whole time. Here, both Massimo and Dan are agreed that “scientism” is mistaken, and they were explaining why certain beliefs are mistaken. Often their explanations are entirely correct, except that they are shooting down ideas that virtually no-one is advancing.

    On a couple of points:

    Massimo was wondering why people such as Jerry Coyne argue for a broad definition of “science” that includes plumbing. The point is epistemological, and is essentially a defence of empiricism. The knowledge of how to construct good plumbing is essentially empirical, and not, say, a priori. In the same way, knowledge of how to predict solar eclipses is empirical and not a priori.

    If that is so, then divides between areas of knowledge are somewhat arbitrary. Yes, names for different areas might be useful, but they are not big epistemological demarcations where “other ways of knowing” take over. Thus it is a rejection of NOMA, a priori knowledge, and anything else not ultimately rooted in empiricism.

    Dan,

    At the risk of over-repetition from previous threads: Your demolition of the idea that “reductionism” can reduce high-level concepts to explanations that are entirely in low-level (= physical) language, is entirely correct. But almost no-one in physics argues for that idea, since it is so obviously and blatantly and ludicrously incorrect. To physicists “reductionism” is a statement about ontology not epistemology.

    I’ve said this before, but to physicists “reductionism” means “supervenience physicalism”, and physicists generally don’t realise that philosophers might mean something different by it — hence potential for miscommunication.

    If anyone doesn’t believe me, I refer them, for example, to this piece by Sean Carroll (referred to by Massimo as one of the less scientismist of physicists!).

    In it he is clearly puzzled by what the dispute is about, he clearly sees “reductionism” as ontological and not epistemological, and, though he doesn’t use the term, he defines reductionism as supervenience physicalism.

    Another point, on Massimo‘s comment on the “it’s all an illusion crowd”. The term “illusion” does not imply “non-existent”, it implies “not as it might superficially appear”.

    Anyhow, as above, while this video was worthwhile, it did have the feel of two buddies going clay-pigeon shooting.

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  4. Liam:

    The position you describe is essentially Indirect Realism — or as it was described in the Enlightenment, “the theory of ideas — in which our direct awareness is of a conscious object (what you call a “phenomenal content”) — that only partly resembles the “real thing”, if it resembles it at all.

    The trouble, of course, is that this view leads straight into catastrophic, global skepticism. Indeed, this arc, from the Theory of Ideas to global skepticism, is the primary arc of Enlightenment Epistemology, from Descartes to Kant.

    Coel:

    With respect to the chummy nature of the dialogue, Massimo and I will be filming a new dialogue on Skepticism, this Monday, where I suspect we will disagree quite a bit. The aim of this dialogue was really to interview Massimo on a subject that had appeared on S.S., hence the lack of a debate format.

    With respect to the other criticism, we *do* discuss the extent to which ontological reductionism must also be qualified — the token vs type physicalism distinction — so perhaps you might want to speak to that aspect of the dialogue. I, probably more than Massimo, think that ontological reductionism is also largely false, other than in the what I take to be trivial token physicalist sense.

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  5. Hi Aravis,

    … we *do* discuss the extent to which ontological reductionism must also be qualified —- the token vs type physicalism distinction -— so perhaps you might want to speak to that aspect of the dialogue.

    I agree with you on that also. It seems pretty trivially true. Cathedrals might be composed of sandstone or limestone or other rocks (and thence chemical molecules and thence physical particles) but “cathedral” is not an entity in the geologist’s or the physicist’s lexicon.

    Thus ontological reductionism is not a statement that all “types” need to be “types” in the lexicon of low-level physics, but is only the idea that the higher-level types are themselves made of lower-level entities.

    I’d also say that almost no scientismists would argue for “type reductionism” since few of them would even be aware of the concept (that idea has been discussed within philosophy but it has never been a live issue within science, as far as I’m aware).

    … ontological reductionism is also largely false, other than in the what I take to be trivial token physicalist sense.

    This is where I do disagree, in that I don’t see anything trivial about supervenience physicalism.** The idea that all the colossal complexity and diversity of the world is composed of repeated patterns of very few fundamental particles has immense implications for science and for how we understand the world.

    Indeed Feynman, in his classic Feynman Lectures on Physics started off by saying:

    If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms -— little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

    Isn’t it quite remarkable that one could construct both a cathedral and a tiger out of no more than up-quarks, down-quarks and electrons, plus two force-carrying particles, the photon and the gluon?

    That last sentence is not in any way intended to deny the immense interest in studying the multitude of patterns that those particles get themselves into, in addition to studying the particles themselves!

    [**I’m not sure I hold even to “token physicalism”, let alone “type physicalism”, since token physicalism seems to be a slightly stronger concept than supervenience physicalism, which is all I argue for, and which is quite sufficient for a unity of science and for my brand of scientism.]

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  6. I am conflicted. I could argue for a broad definition of software engineering which would include science, mathematics, engineering, literature and art, and thus increase our empire.

    On the other hand, should I argue for a broad definition of science which would include software engineering and then I get to call myself a scientist.

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  7. Aravis,

    Yes, I agree. The obvious consequence of this indirect realism*, as you call it, is that it challenges us not to take the content of our conscious mind at face value. The end might be global skepticism if one stops there, but there is no reason for that. The question really becomes what can one know when the content of our minds is often uncertain? The obvious answer is that while humans have a vast information base, and many questions have answers that are certain by common sense standards, all answers that are purely ideal or a priori have a high degree of uncertainty. These purely ideal or a priori questions are a large and extremely important part of our lives, but they can not be answered with certainty. These are all matters of faith and opinion. These are mostly good things, except when claims of certainty are made. Religious fundamentalists are not the only ones prone to this error, but they are a prime example.

    So, at this point, a useful rule of thumb seems to be that any purely ideal or metaphysical statement that claims to be certainly true, should be discounted as inaccurate and/or confused.

    Epistemologists, ontologists and metaphysicians should face this fact at all times, but they don’t it seems to me. It would seem to be a clear methodological error to discount scientific insights if they could lead to unpalatable existential conclusions. It would be better to try to reconcile these differences; in essence, the ontologists will have to change their opinion.

    * I might be a realistic existentialist or biological realist, but need more time to think about it. 🙂

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  8. Coel,

    It seems to me that Massimo is right that Jerry’s calling all knowledge “science” is confusing. What Jerry wants to say is that all forms of knowledge that appeal to reason, evidence, science, and logic are “science.” This is to create confusion in my view. For one thing, it strains the ordinary use of words to say that when a historian verifies something that happened in the past, he is doing “science” (he is not applying the scientific method here). Or when a cashier verifies that my $100 bill is genuine, he is doing “science” (did this involve repeated experiments and peer review?). Or, worse, when I am making love to my wife and respond to the empirical evidence she presents about what she likes I am doing “science” (so love making is scientific procedure?). If making love counts as “science” then the word has become so stretched that it is no longer useful. Furthermore, notice that Jerry is not entirely clear on what falls under his conception. You suggest he means to rule out “a priori” knowledge. But notice that Jerry often invokes the Euthyphro Dilemma from Plato as an argument against religious ethics. (Either God wills it because it is good, or it is good because God wills it. etc. etc.) This argument from Plato is an a priori argument. So I think Massimo is right to find Jerry’s views unhelpful here.

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  9. What science can also define is a community of thinkers who share rules and language, which is why Massimo’s example of his driving in Manhattan is an example that doesn’t fit science. Between you and your wife as a communty of two lovemaking does have shared rules and shared body a well as spoken emotional language.

    The discussion of science and non-reductive explanations make sense because brains evolved as social mechanisms. As a friend we don’t need to talk on a reductive level as Dan pointed out he could help understand the social envronent that effected his friend as opposed to the psychologist who knew him on a less personal level but could prescribe a drug for his depression.

    Interestingly Massimo discussed dialog as a method as opposed to writing an essay and this conversation was a dialog.

    As far as literature and philosophy, children discovering Harry Potter or as young adults reading philosophers, our brains have been socially conditioned previously, so reading literature and philosophy literally opens new doors and worlds in our brains. Once again it is a social organ and social conditioning that sets us up. I enjoyed reading Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and The Social Brain”. He has very interesting philosophical insights on his cog sci work and sets up an interesting argument for the conclusion.

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  10. Coel:

    That last sentence is not in any way intended to deny the immense interest in studying the multitude of patterns that those particles get themselves into, in addition to studying the particles themselves!

    __________________________

    But isn’t that part of what we’ve all talked about at some length here at SS and something that Dan and Massimo covered in their last video? How can you be a self-avowed fan of scientism when in and of itself scientism denies “studying the multitude of patterns that those particles get themselves into” unless it is already a “scientific” approach? In other words, I think you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too- saying that studying “the multitude of patterns” is great (and not even maybe so much as a token physicalist) but then promoting a position that seeks to obliterate other fields that do precisely that at higher levels of description in the name of scientism. Massimo, Dan- have I misunderstood something here?

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  11. Coel, I want to make sure I understand you correctly.

    You are *accepting* that social science and other “higher level” types are irreducible to physical types.

    You understand, of course, that this means that many things will have their causal efficacy by virtue of their higher level properties. E.g. it will be virtue of the propositional content of beliefs and desires that they play the causal role they play in human behavior (the reason I got on the plane to Orlando is because of the content of my belief that Disneyworld is in Orlando and because of the content of my desire that I should go to Disneyworld).

    The reason I am a bit surprised is that in the past, you have *denied* the autonomy of the social sciences. Indeed, I don’t see in what sense your view — as described here — counts as Scientism in any way, shape or form.

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  12. It seems these conversations tend to bleed into one another. I started with the presumption this was a different area from the topic of metaphysics, yet it seems the same mechanism is at work, in that the epistemic is the conceptual frame, essentially the metaphysical assumptions, we use to examine the physical/ontological factors.
    For example, the issue of the nature of currency is used, that while bottom up/ontologically, it must be a physical property, even if just electrons in a computer, while the top down view, of units of economic exchange, they fit within and are components of the world economy and on to society, etc.
    The problem I keep seeing is this relationship is being described in terms of levels, With much arguing over how they all fit together, without taking the inherent dichotomy of top down framing and bottom up physicality into account.
    So then it becomes an argument over whose framing device is better/more effective/real/moral/rational/etc. than the others.
    There is no absolute frame, because the absolute is equilibrium. Where all frames cancel out. So as soon as there is a bottom up physicality, it is expressing some top down form/frame and there is no ultimate top down frame, as they arise from the equilibrium.
    Dan’s example of a friend in distress points out the difficulty of fully understanding normal human situations/personal frames and how clumsy the generic methods of approaching these realities and relations. If we were to stand back and appreciate a frame as unique and cannot be fit into another box, it might help to appreciate the wholistic reality and while everything ties into one another, the consequence is mutual support, not some reductionistic universal model.
    To appreciate anything, there is both the bottom up parts of which it is composed and the top down context which gives it function.
    The discussion of art and literature gives an example of a complex context, in which tying together the parts, the art, the writing of the period, gives a more effective view, by showing the human relations, than trying to describe the whole era objectively.
    So we are both nodes and networks and when one direction starts to slow, we take the other tack and see where it leads.

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  13. Interesting chat Massimo and Dan,

    I have a lot of questions about levels of description mentioned frequently here. I’m interest in anyone’s take on them. Since our descriptions are based on our perceptual interactions with the world, are those percepts we describe inherent, ontologically, in that which exists independently of our perception/descriptions of it?

    For example, a tree is a system which is defined entirely by its function within a larger system. Every part of the tree interacts, directly or indirectly, with the contextual web of it’s environment. When we perceptually isolate the tree from it’s environment, dividing nature at it’s joints so to speak, are those divisions inherent if there is no perception around to make those divisions? Are the joints inherent in nature? Or is nature nothing but joints and it is perception which divides it according to its own organismic imperatives?

    What does it even mean to use the word ‘ontology’ if it only means ‘existence independent of our perceptions/descriptions’? That is, to refer to some unknown source of our perceptions? In other words, why is epistemology not perception and perception not ontology?

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  14. Our concept of knowledge seems very problematic. I actually had almost the exact same experience as Massimo regarding the ethics of our treatment of animals. When I watched videos of animals being grossly mistreated it certainly rearranged some neural networks. I’m uncomfortable calling this knowledge. I agree with Massimo that it was psychological manipulation, manipulation that I welcomed, though. I don’t know how to talk about this sort of “persuasion.” And this is why I sympathize with the eliminative materialists when they say that we will need to redefine our folk psychological concepts, if not outright eliminate many of them.

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  15. Robin Herbert: “I could argue for a broad definition of software engineering which would include science, mathematics, engineering, literature and art, and thus increase our empire.”

    science
    – The reverse engineering of some aspect of nature into some domain-specific language.

    (There is a growing collection of domain-specific languages – DSLs – for biology and chemistry [ e.g. http://arxiv.org/abs/1206.6098 ]. Few I have seen yet for physics, which is curious. There are some DSLs now for parts of mathematics – combinatorics, for one. And as for the arts, a DSL for interactive mixed music [ http://hal.inria.fr/hal-00850299 ]. Questions the growth of DSLs brings up though include Quinean intertranslatability and whether they will collectively lead to a unity or disunity of the sciences, etc.)

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  16. Hi Coel,

    Another point, on Massimo‘s comment on the “it’s all an illusion crowd”. The term “illusion” does not imply “non-existent”, it implies “not as it might superficially appear”.

    I never really understood this point of view.

    Take pain for example. Suppose pain was not what it superficially seems to be.

    So we have pain-as-it-seems-to-be and pain-as-it-really-is

    Take pain-as-it-really-is and ask the question – does it hurt?

    If so, then it is just pain-as-it-seems-to-be, if not then it is not what we mean by the word pain.

    When I say “I feel a pain in my shoulder”, what else could I mean but what pain seems to be?

    So when we talk of conscious experience, it is the “seeming to be” that we are speaking of.

    As for “superficial”, well examine it ever so closely and what will you ever find but more “seeming-to-be”?

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  17. Hi Aravis,

    > Indeed, I don’t see in what sense your view — as described here — counts as Scientism in any way, shape or form.

    I said this to you at the time you recorded this video and many times since: I don’t think the scientismists you criticise actually exist. Scientismists and philosophers are talking at cross purposes, meaning different ideas by ‘reductionism’ and so on. This latest exchange with Coel, one of the most scientistically inclined commentators on this site, goes to demonstrate my point.

    > E.g. it will be virtue of the propositional content of beliefs and desires that they play the causal role they play in human behavior

    That is true. However the point the scientismists emphasise is also true — the fact that the physical atoms comprising your body join the physical atoms comprising the plane is explainable by virtue of the causal role played by the laws of physics in action on electrons and quarks and so on. The crucial point from a scientistic point of view is that there are no genuinely novel forces acting on those particles — a purely physical level of description is causally closed.

    However you are right that true reductionism is impossible. Entities such as persons and planes do not exist at the level of description of fundamental physics, so there cannot be general theories at the level of particle physics describing why and when people might get on planes. There can only be specific explanations of why this specific assemblage of atoms (you) moved towards that specific assemblage of atoms (a plane) on this specific occasion. Furthermore these specific descriptions are so complex as to be completely useless for any practical purpose.

    I think if you had the time and opportunity to hash this stuff out with Jerry Coyne or any other scientismist with half a brain you would find a similar misunderstanding at the root of the disagreement.

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  18. Thanks guys for a very stimulating discussion. I don’t agree with those who think the format of these dialogues is too chummy. I see the relationship as being akin to a writer and his editor with Massimo being the “writer” on this occasion and Dan “editing” on the fly. We don’t demand an adversarial structure to written pieces and I see no reason why it should always be required in a spoken presentation.
    For me the most interesting point to emerge from this conversation is the understanding that to properly analyse anything at the human level of discourse, we have to consider one or more levels below and above the human level. The levels below the human lead (if not *reduce*) to the level of reality described by fundamental physics. The levels above presumably lead upwards (epistemically, ontologically?) to some kind of universal holistic entity. Although it is unhelpful to discuss say, human psychology, in terms of fundamental particles, the privileged ontological status of those particles/waves/quantum bits underpins the more or less scientismic attitudes of many public intellectuals today. Is there any good reason why the universal holistic entity (clumsy title, but what can you do?) should not be accorded the same ontological status as the quantum bits at the other end of the scale?
    However that may be, I find it strangely comforting to think that it’s not only turtles all the way down but turtles all the way up as well. 😊

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  19. Actually, DM, I don’t think Coel is being consistent. I can’t say for sure, until I hear back from him, but what he is saying now doesn’t square with what he has said in the past. For one thing, I don’t recall his accepting the idea of the autonomy of the special sciences — which follows from the sort of position I have described — nor do I recall his accepting the rejection of ontological reductionism. Jarnauga also seems to recall Coel’s previous positions differently.

    I look forward to hearing his reply.

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  20. Even though the video-hour was well spent and I agree with much of the content, objective universal reality is the real problem. Science is what works. Scientism is a religion.

    Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley, in Alien, suffers dependable technology disasters from reason and science limits. Ripley uses vicious pounding and blunt force to get unlikely-to-work technology, to perhaps not malfunction. Spock or Data uses a trusted computer keys

    troke to save everyone.

    Alien is science versus raw biological survival. Star Trek is science versus the manifest image. Star Trek science pierces the manifest image to compare a save-the-day expression with universal objective reality. Correspondence prayers to the nonhuman, objective, universal reality guides human flourishing.

    Twenty-first century naïve renaissance scientific hubris is the new religion. The new faith is technocrat reason. Universal objective reality is the new god. The scientific method is the only interesting Language game; expressions unfit for this language are not interesting—the new Atheists and others …

    From Thales’ transmuted water to Higgs particles, ultimate reality, universal objective reality, nonhuman reality is a view from Putnam’s “nowhere.” Higgs particles will never verify it’s wrong for police to kill unarmed youth. The levels of explanation are the nested language games used for different ways to know or to understand: ethics, politics, literature, poetry, quantum physics, evolution, and …

    Naïve realists have direct access to the “view from nowhere” and appear to miss Rorty point: nonhuman objective universal reality as the human behavior guideline is only stylistically different than “god is on my side.”

    Scientism the world narrowed to objective universal reality, nowhere and God.

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  21. Hi Wm Burgess,

    Your questions relate to a previous discussion on reality: can we conceptualize reality as it is, ultimate reality? The answer seems to be yes, but with great difficulty.

    Today, the ordinary concept of reality in consciousness includes many qualities that are not observable by the senses. E.g. the stars in the firmament are not guides left by the angels, they are mostly suns and a few galaxies. The air we breath is composed of molecules of oxygen, etc. The experience of pain is real, there just is no such ‘thing’ as pain at the site of tissue injury. The experience of red is real, there just is no such thing.

    So, ‘transhuman’ activities continue to modify our common sense understanding of reality. Some thinkers visualize a future in which superhuman computers will do most of the big data analysis and interpretation. Others question this vision, insisting that culture is less computational, rather, it is more transactional.

    I say that evolutionary pressures are still in full swing, I just have no clue what it means to be fit for future survival. My feeling is that it has to do with genetic and phenotypic diversity which leads to greater information processing by the community as a whole. There can then be a greater degree of interaction with reality as it is (ultimate reality) which should enhance the likelihood of survival in the face of an unexpected challenge.

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  22. Sorry to be late to the party, busy week…

    Liam,

    “The phenomenal content of our minds, i.e. 100% of what we are consciously aware of, is 100% constructed from trillions of neurochemical signals. What should one call these phenomena that flit across our mental screens?”

    Definitely *not* illusions, unless one wants to completely pervert the meaning of the word.

    “The use of the term illusion to describe our mental phenomena or quaila is perhaps unfortunate, but it is vastly more accurate than to claim that our qualia are real, accurate and precise reflections of reality.”

    I honestly don’t think those are the only two alternatives. And I know of no philosopher who claims the latter, by the way.

    Coel,

    “Often their explanations are entirely correct, except that they are shooting down ideas that virtually no-one is advancing.”

    I beg to *strongly* disagree.

    “why people such as Jerry Coyne argue for a broad definition of “science” that includes plumbing. The point is epistemological, and is essentially a defence of empiricism.”

    The point, seems to me, is ideological: Jerry wants to say that science is the only way to understand anything of import, or anything pertinent to reality.

    “divides between areas of knowledge are somewhat arbitrary.”

    Nobody denies that, but “science,” as I’ve said umpteen times, is a word characterized by a common meaning, codified in every dictionary, that is simply *not* the meaning that you and Jerry attribute to it. Which means that if you use it in public discussions you are (willfully?) misleading your readers.

    Robin,

    “I am conflicted. I could argue for a broad definition of software engineering which would include science, mathematics, engineering, literature and art, and thus increase our empire.
    On the other hand, should I argue for a broad definition of science which would include software engineering and then I get to call myself a scientist.”

    Precisely…

    “When I say “I feel a pain in my shoulder”, what else could I mean but what pain seems to be?”

    That’s why Searle refers to the illusion crowd as the people who deny the data.

    Victor,

    “What science can also define is a community of thinkers who share rules and language, which is why Massimo’s example of his driving in Manhattan is an example that doesn’t fit science.”

    Just like plumbing.

    jarnauga,

    “I think you’re (Coel) trying to have your cake and eat it too- saying that studying “the multitude of patterns” is great (and not even maybe so much as a token physicalist) but then promoting a position that seeks to obliterate other fields that do precisely that at higher levels of description in the name of scientism”

    That seems to be the case.

    brodix,

    I keep finding your comments both interesting and largely irrelevant to the subject matter. It doesn’t all go down to thermodynamics, my friend.

    Burgess,

    “Since our descriptions are based on our perceptual interactions with the world, are those percepts we describe inherent, ontologically, in that which exists independently of our perception/descriptions of it?”

    Do our descriptions cut nature at its joints, as philosophers would say? Most of the time probably not, in the sense that there may be a number of alternative descriptions of the same perceptions. But the case under discussion — the nature of science, philosophy, etc. — is clearly a case of where human beings have been drawing distinctions, and for what reasons. The fact that these distinctions are neither “natural” nor absolute does not undermine the idea that they make sense and are useful.

    “What does it even mean to use the word ‘ontology’ if it only means ‘existence independent of our perceptions/descriptions’?”

    Good question. That’s why I like my ontology to be closely aligned with my epistemology.

    Jake,

    “I’m uncomfortable calling this knowledge. I agree with Massimo that it was psychological manipulation, manipulation that I welcomed, though. I don’t know how to talk about this sort of “persuasion.””

    Here perhaps my new interest in Stoicism can help: I did have an emotional reaction to watching that documentary (which, to be fair, was a conscious choice on my part anyway); but then I reflected on those emotions and decided to give them my “assent,” i.e., to acknowledge that they did in fact reflect the way I *should* feel about the horrible practices described in the documentary.

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  23. Liam wrote:

    “The end might be global skepticism if one stops there, but there is no reason for that. The question really becomes what can one know when the content of our minds is often uncertain? The obvious answer is that while humans have a vast information base, and many questions have answers that are certain by common sense standards, all answers that are purely ideal or a priori have a high degree of uncertainty. These purely ideal or a priori questions are a large and extremely important part of our lives, but they can not be answered with certainty.”

    ——————————————-

    I may not be understanding this correctly, but two thoughts come to mind. First, there are a number of things that I know purely a priori that it would seem I know with far greater certainty than anything else. For example, I know that A=A; I know that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180 degrees; I know that bachelors are unmarried. In all these cases, what I know carries a much higher degree of certainty than anything I know that is empirical.

    Secondly, I may not have communicated this well, but the problem with the way you describe things strikes me as being *structural* in nature — that is, epistemological trouble is *built into* the kind of representationalism you describe — viz. that we are directly conscious of a mental representation that only partially resembles the real thing, if at all — and it is trouble that cannot be avoided, so long as that picture is maintained.

    I should say, however, that as a deeper matter, I entirely agree with you. I believe that human reason is actually quite limited and more importantly, dependent upon our non-rational nature. My overall epistemological orientation tends towards the naturalistic reading of Hume (not to be confused with scientific naturalism), a la Norman Kemp Smith, and the account of justification/warrant found in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. On that view the very process of rational justification cannot even begin, unless a substantial number of things are already believed — things that themselves have no rational warrant. Hume takes these beliefs to be “natural,” while Wittgenstein thinks of them like the scaffolding of a structure — although he says the scaffolding and structure are “not chosen,” which suggests he thought them natural as well.

    I suspect that many of these points will arise in the dialogue on Skepticism, which Massimo and I will be filming on Monday.

    ——————————————

    Jake wrote:

    Our concept of knowledge seems very problematic…

    and then wrote:

    this is why I sympathize with the eliminative materialists when they say that we will need to redefine our folk psychological concepts, if not outright eliminate many of them…

    ——————————————-

    No! Don’t you see the problem inherent in that approach? The “hard science” that eliminativists want to replace folk psychology with is itself “knowledge” and shares all the same epistemic problems that every other knowledge-endeavor suffers. (Not to mention all the problems that Massimo and I discussed with trying to give hard science explanations of all the things we want to explain — that’s what half the dialogue was devoted to.)

    The lesson to draw from this all is that knowledge is fragmented, disunified, altogether uncertain, and that this is not only OK, but the only way things could ever be, given human nature. The eliminativists are even worse than the postivistic unity-of-the-sciences crowd.

    ———————————————-

    WmBurgess:

    It seems to me that you have discovered the incoherence of trying to describe our knowledge as a conceptual scheme that is meant to “fit” a pre-existing reality. Welcome to the forces of light! Hilary Putnam’s “The Many Faces of Realism,” Nelson Goodman’s “Ways of Worldmaking”, and Donald Davidson’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” should all be on your reading list. But don’t expect them to draw the same conclusions from the very important point that you have uncovered!

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  24. Hi Aravis,

    > Jarnauga also seems to recall Coel’s previous positions differently.

    The problem is you don’t recall what Coel meant to say, you only recall what you took him to mean.

    Even if his past words superficially contradict what he is saying now, that may be more a result of your influence leading him to better expression of his world view, (e.g. by teaching him more philosophically orthodox terms and definitions and making him aware of necessary caveats and clarifications) than a change of his actual views.

    And the same goes, I feel, for other reductionists and scientismists.

    Anyway, we’ll see what he says!

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  25. Hi All,

    Re: “broad-definition” science, Coyne, plumbing, etc. To reiterate, the point is about epistemology, and is a defence of empiricism. Arriving at good plumbing is empirical (as opposed to, e.g., divination) in the same way that arriving at good physics or good engineering is empirical.

    If you strip Coyne’s remarks out of context they might seem confusing or misleading, but read in context, trying to understand what he’s saying, they make sense. There is no hidden agenda to dismiss the humanities (though there is an overt agenda to dismiss theology). I’d also say that I’m most likely to be interpreting Coyne correctly, because I think pretty much like him.

    Robin: As for calling the ensemble “software engineering” or natural philosophy, or whatever, ok, fine, please do! I don’t care what we call it, the point is epistemological, that the same basic rules of evidence, reason and how to find things out (= empiricism) apply in all these domains.

    Hi couchloc,

    … it strains the ordinary use of words to say that when a historian verifies something that happened in the past, he is doing “science” …

    Yes, it is not the “ordinary use” of the word, but the point is to argue that the basic epistemology is the same in such fields. The K–T extinction and the Chixulub crater also “happened in the past”, the whole field of geology is about what happened to Earth in the past. Is this unscientific? When does paleontology and archeology change into history? If the answer is “with the first written records”, then that is a fairly arbitrary point about style, not about the underlying epistemology.

    If making love counts as “science” then the word has become so stretched that it is no longer useful.

    Since the point about “broad science” is about epistemology and empiricism, it is about how we find things out and obtain knowledge. Of course vast areas of human activity are not primarily about gaining knowledge and thus are not “science”. But, basic use of your senses to gather data is a method of science!

    Hi jarnauga111,

    … saying that studying “the multitude of patterns” is great … but then promoting a position that seeks to obliterate other fields that do precisely that at higher levels of description in the name of scientism.

    Scientism is not about obliterating those other fields, it’s about saying that knowledge in those other fields is also, ultimately, empirical, and thus that distinctions between them and science are matters of style, not about NOMA-style ravines.

    Hi Robin,

    “It’s an illusion” essentially means “you are thinking about it the wrong way”. Suppose someone thinks they have a non-material conscious soul that tells matter what to do. The reply that such consciousness “is an illusion” is not saying they have no conscious experience, it says they are interpreting it the wrong way, and that instead the conscious experience is an epiphenomenon of the material. As I said “illusion” => “not as it might appear”.

    Also: DM‘s point is one I’ve emphasized before. Scientists and philosophers use different languages! E.g., to a physicist “reductionism” means “supervenience physicalism” and nothing more. Thus if I talk about “reductionism” and then defend “supervience physicalism” that is not a retreat, it’s a matter of translating and improving communication. This is also important when interpreting Coyne and other scientismists.

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  26. Interesting dialogue, although covering well-worn ground here at SS.

    The mention of Coyne seemed a bit off, since he’s actually ‘soft on philosophy,’ by more stringent/strident scietismist standards. Still….

    I remember from one post at his WEIT site, that Jerry Coyne, toward the end of arguing for incompatibilist determinism from a scientistic perspective, admitted that he wept when reading James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I was touched, but also perplexed, because in the context, he seemed to be saying that adopting a rigorously sceintific determinism would actually not change anything. That seems wrong. Surely to adopt a given perspective on life, a certain philosophic attitude, should change one’s life, perhaps profoundly. I didn’t become a Buddhist because it looks good in a blog post.

    Of course, that’s a flippant example, I’m hardly accusing Coyne of that kind of superficiality! But the point is, our beliefs ought to shape our behavior. There is nothing to be learned scientifically from Joyce’s novella, surely reading it wastes one’s time, which could be better spent running simulations through a computer.

    In the early 1920s, when eugenics was all the fad, Clemence Dane wrote a play, filmed twice, called “A Bill of Divorcement.” It’s the story of a man diagnosed with ‘insanity,’ and his daughter, who, his doctor tells him, “should never have been born.” Upon hearing this, the daughter breaks off her marriage engagement, and apparently decides to devote the rest of her life to caring for her father, happy in the knowledge that she will never pass on those misbegotten genes she inherited.

    Now, there’s a real scientistic life choice! If scientismists practiced what they preached, they should never engage in reproduction until they have their prospective partner genetically scanned for defects. They should disavow any emotional response to experience as illusion. When a friend comes to them weeping over the death of a child, their proper response should be ‘so, the organism failed and your synapses are overloaded right now?’ And urge the father unit to go out and reproduce right away, ‘must keep those genes in play, y’know.’ Of course they should remind the other that they are friends simply due to an evolutionary development engendering empathy as a benefit to their own survival; and that, neuroscientifically speaking, they’re not really friends anyway, that’s all illusion.

    All right, I’m getting carried away. But I insist that scientismists, before offering the wonders of a brave new world, should first begin with personal testimonial: ‘this is how scientism has changed my behavior – how it has made me act more ethically, how it has made me more sensitive to others, how it has increased my aesthetic appreciation, how it has guided my political choices. I just feel better, thanks to scientism!’

    Notably, a number of scientismists have espoused liberal, state-interventionist political causes – while a number have espoused conservative, libertarian causes. This can’t be right. Something’s wrong with science if it can’t tell us who to vote for in the next election.

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  27. Hi Aravis,

    You understand, of course, that this means that many things will have their causal efficacy by virtue of their higher level properties.

    Yes, I agree, and I agree with everything in that paragraph. Discussing causation in terms of higher level properties (which do not type-reduce to low-level properties) is entirely correct, appropriate, useful and valid.

    The only word of your comment that I disagree with is the word “autonomous”:

    … you have *denied* the autonomy of the social sciences.

    The different levels are not autonomous, they are complementary. That means that a higher-level description needs to be entirely consistent with a lower-level description. That does not mean that the lower-level description is better, or primary, or more explanatory, or more useful — most of the time for complex systems it will be pretty useless — but the different descriptions do need to be mutually consistent, and the best and most complete understanding comes from being able to inter-relate the explanations at the different levels.

    For example, Darwin wrote OofS in terms of animal-level and species-level concepts, and knew nothing about molecular-level genetics. Nowadays we do, and the descriptions at the species-level and the molecular-genetics level need to mesh consistently. If they were inconsistent we could not simply declare that the different levels were autonomous, and that they needn’t be consistent, and thus ignore the problem. The consistent meshing of the two levels today is why we have great confidence in the correctness of the Darwinian explanation.

    This requirement for consistency between levels of explanation requires only supervenience physicalism — and that is itself a strong statement about nature and a powerful tool of science. Nothing I’ve just said requires either type physicalism, token physicalism or bridge laws or anything else, all it requires is supervenience physicalism.

    I know that A=A; I know that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180 degrees … carries a much higher degree of certainty than anything I know that is empirical.

    Whereas the scientismist would assert that your knowledge of these things is also, ultimately, empirical, that you have arrived at them as models of reality, from axioms that are basic models of reality, and that you only overlook the “empirical” element because they are so basic and pervasive. But then the most basic of empirical facts are indeed going to be pretty basic and pervasive.

    On that view the very process of rational justification cannot even begin, unless a substantial number of things are already believed -— things that themselves have no rational warrant.

    Whereas the Quinian-web view would assert that those beliefs have warrant owing to the fact that the web-ensemble does have predictive power about reality (or, about our stream of experiences), and that would not be the case if those beliefs were badly wrong.

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  28. Regarding scientism, I still have a question that I posed a few years ago in an essay that I wrote for the old Rational Speaking blog. This is whether scientism is just a matter of holding certain views about knowledge (that critics consider false), as many seem to believe, or a combination of such viewpoints and a certain pro-science ideology. This question came to me because I’ve met a lot of people who have the kinds of beliefs about knowledge that we might associate with scientism but who are not especially enthusiastic about science. As I said in the essay, as those people wouldn’t seem to count as scientismists, scientism must reside significantly in the pro-science ideology part. In particular, if scientism is something more negative than just certain false views about knowledge (from the point of view of critics), then the problem must reside in errors related to the ideology. So the general questions are: 1) Is a pro-science ideology necessary for scientism or is merely holding certain views about knowledge enough? and 2) If the former alternative in (1) holds, what’s wrong with this ideology? For my part, I suspect that scientism is at least as much a topic of political philosophy as it is of epistemology.

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  29. Coel, thanks,

    You write: “basic use of your senses to gather data is a method of science!” I’m not sure what I am supposed to infer from this.

    Compare: “basic use of reasoning to think is a method of philosophy!” Should we infer from this that whenever anyone thinks they are doing philosophy? Seriously?

    It seems to me that the problem you raise can be addressed in the following way: Coyne, et al think that the best way to try to counter the religious believers they dislike is to make a broad epistemological argument that “all knowledge is scientific knowledge.” Coyne thinks that if we characterize all knowledge as empirical, as you suggest, then we can argue that religious beliefs aren’t really knowledge.

    Now, I agree that criticizing religious beliefs is a reasonable goal to achieve. But this route to the goal is wrongheaded to several of us, as Massimo and others have suggested. Coyne’s approach is to deal with religious beliefs by revising our concept of knowledge to say:

    (a) the only knowledge is scientific, and this includes biology, plumbing, etc.

    This approach causes two problems. First, you take a needless detour through broad areas of epistemology (what is knowledge, are their differences among logic, philosophy, math, history, biology, etc?). This makes this approach difficult to justify because it is very hard to show that all these different areas of inquiry use the same basic, empirical methodology. Second, you end up confusing the average person by suggesting that all knowledge is “scientific.” Plumbers aren’t usually called scientists in our society, historians don’t belong to departments of science, and we don’t describe ordinary activities like sex that use the senses as science. So this approach is very confusing to many people.

    More importantly this isn’t needed to acheive your goal. You can just say that

    (b) religious beliefs are not justified.

    This point can be made directly I would think. We can say that “all knowledge is based on evidence-based inquiry.” Disciplines that are evidence-based include science, history, math, logic, philosophy, etc. Religious beliefs are not evidence-based an so don’t meet this standard. None of this requires playing semantics with words.

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  30. Excellent discussion! Among many your points, I will comment on three only.

    P1, scientism: science vs the other ways of knowing.

    P2, physical vs non-physical: {token/currency}, {brain/mind (intelligence, consciousness, free will, morality, …)}.

    P3, direct reductionism (DR): mind to brain-states to bio-chemistry (DNA, proteins, …) to atoms to … to quarks, …

    For P3, what is brain-state? A totally not defined term in terms of science, as there is no particular brain-structure which can be identified to correspond to a particular mind representation. In fact, two identical brain-structures (same neuron numbers with identical CONNECTIONS) with different BURNT-IN will produce two complete different brains {as great scientist (Einstein) or as suicide bomber}, see (http://www.prequark.org/inte001.htm ).

    Simply, the DR is wrong. The Nature is constructed with {Domain-reduction}, with at least four Domains.

    D1, popped out by Pop1: physical universe {stars, planets, bodies of lives, …}

    D2, popped out by Pop2: math universe {concepts, logics, …}

    D3, popped out by Pop3: life universe { metabolism, replication (reproduction), …}

    D4, popped out by Pop4: above-life-body universe {intelligence, consciousness, morality, …}

    There are two laws for the Domain-Reduction (DoR).

    Law one: the DR (direct reduction) works in each domain but will STOP at the Domain-wall (DW). Although there are some relationships among domains, they cannot be directly reduced to one another.

    Law two: although domains are having different expressions, their pops {Pop1, …, Pop4} are totally ISOMORPHIC, and those pops SHARE the same SOURCE. See, https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/infinities-in-literature-and-mathematics/comment-page-1/#comment-9782 .

    The DR (direct reductionism) is wrong. The Nature is constructed as DoR (Domain-reductions).

    In fact, the misunderstanding of P2 is a major culprit for the failure of DR. Is “currency” not physical? What is Physical? Without a clear definition for physical, we will forever be trapped in the word-game.

    Anything made of material (atoms) is physical. Yet, I must defined a new term, {anchored physical (AP)}. AP itself is not material but is ANCHORED in material, such as ‘currency’ is anchored in ‘Tokens’. Without ‘token {a bill or a bitcoin (as digital memory)’, there will be no currency. An AP can be a PRODUCT of a token. If something PRODUCES some tokens, it is also an AP. Most AP(s) are anchored both ends. Now, we can clearly define the term {Physical}.

    One, a token is physical

    Two, an AP is physical

    Anything which is not anchored to a token is non-AP, is non-physical. With this clear definition, we will no longer confused with some nonsense statements, such as {“Physical possibility is but a tiny fraction of logical possibility”. See, https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/metaphysics-and-lack-of-grounding/comment-page-2/#comment-12589 }. And, this new definition resolves the P2 issue.

    Scientism which is based on the current state of sciences {without resolving the issue of P2 and P3} is definitely without the RIGHT to claim to be the only way of knowing. Science as defined by Popperianism is definitely unable to resolve the P2 and P3 issues. The current Scientism is totally nonsense. More, next.

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  31. Massimo writes that he knows of no philosopher that claims “that our qualia are real, accurate and precise reflections of reality.” Honestly, I do not know philosophers of either stripe. I will bet, however, that 99%+ of humanity thinks that. I have discussed the matter at a local bar with some of the smartest people I know (inn-keepers, lawyers, insurance agents, artists), and they were incredulous that I would suggest otherwise. Perhaps it is time that the academics in our educational system do a better job – more should get out of the Ivory Tower and walk on Main Street. 🙂

    Aravis writes that “For example, I know that A=A; I know that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180 degrees; I know that bachelors are unmarried. In all these cases, what I know carries a much higher degree of certainty than anything I know that is empirical.” Granted and previously stipulated. However, as soon as the questions become more complex, answers fly off in every direction.

    Our only recourse, it seems, is then to devise ways of testing such hypotheses. No matter how enchanting a purely ideal concept might be, without verification, it is just another opinion or article of faith. Sometimes the question might take on some political urgency and the matter is then put up for a vote; truth by democracy. These decisions are frequently misguided, highlighting the great importance of continuously upgrading educational systems.

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  32. Coel wrote:

    The different levels are not autonomous, they are complementary. That means that a higher-level description needs to be entirely consistent with a lower-level description. That does not mean that the lower-level description is better, or primary, or more explanatory, or more useful — most of the time for complex systems it will be pretty useless — but the different descriptions do need to be mutually consistent, and the best and most complete understanding comes from being able to inter-relate the explanations at the different levels.

    ——————————————————————–

    I would suggest that your use of the word “consistent,” here is obscure.

    In what sense is the statement ‘I believe that Disneyworld is in Orlando’ “consistent” or “inconsistent” with any statement concerning chemical compounds or statements concerning quantum particles?

    Before you say that beliefs concerning Disneyworld “supervene” on some neurochemical state — they don’t. Indeed, there are indefinitely many different types of physical states in which beliefs about Disneyworld could be instantiated. At best, you could say that this individual instance of the belief is identical with this individual instance of a physical state type, but this doesn’t buy you much of anything.

    With regard to you latter point that the “best and most complete understanding comes from being able to interrelate the explanations at different levels,” I say “rubbish.”

    Suppose I wanted to give an account of why John McCain lost the election to Barack Obama. I collect a team of political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists, who give us a comprehensive explanation: we hear about negative public perceptions about Sarah Palin, poor debate performances on the part of John McCain, demographic information concerning registered voters, likely voters, and the like….

    Nothing anyone could tell us from any physical science would make this explanation better — let alone “best” — or more complete.

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  33. Paul:

    I see nothing that suggests that Scientism requires that one be a fan of science, as an institution, just as one can be religious — in the sense of holding religious beliefs — without being a fan of religious institutions.

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  34. Massimo,

    I seem to have made a serious procedural error in using thermodynamics as an example of feedback loops, to be quite so pigeonholed. Not only wasn’t my point about thermodynamics, it wasn’t even about feedback loops. It was about framing and how knowledge and information require a conceptual frame, in order to extract signal from the noise. Be it science, religion, literature, math, economics, nationhood, politics, plumbing, or any number of other frames. As Philip observed, they all have their domain specific languages. Even the personal point of perspective is a frame and the one to which we are all confined.

    My point is there is no such thing as an absolute frame, the proverbial God’s eye view. That it would be an oxymoron. Yes, some frames, such as physics and math, are more objective, but then they are also limited by their high degree of abstraction from being useful for dealing with the softer sciences and social concerns. While they claim to be the seed from which reality springs, they are more the skeleton or shell left when all the ambiguity and indetermination is distilled away.

    The absolute would necessarily be the essence from which form rises, not an ideal from which it falls. So no to platonic ideal forms.

    So the intent of my post was to draw attention to this dichotomy of the frame and the framed. Feedback loops only enter into how they interact and evolve, but possibly trial and error would be a less loaded concept to describe how framing progresses.

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  35. Again, Aravis, I think you’re misinterpreting Coel. Not necessarily your fault.

    > In what sense is the statement ‘I believe that Disneyworld is in Orlando’ “consistent” or “inconsistent” with any statement concerning chemical compounds or statements concerning quantum particles?

    It is consistent in that it doesn’t contradict. For an example of something that is not probably consistent with physics, see libertarian free will (although that may be debatable). Consistency in the relevant sense means that we don’t get predictions from one level of analysis contradicting predictions from another level of analysis.

    > At best, you could say that this individual instance of the belief is identical with this individual instance of a physical state type, but this doesn’t buy you much of anything.

    Which is fine, because no extravagant claims are being made. These are modest, even banal claims, and they are only taken as something more significant because of this talking at cross-purposes.

    > With regard to you latter point that the “best and most complete understanding comes from being able to interrelate the explanations at different levels,” I say “rubbish.”

    There’s more than one way to interpret that ambiguous statement. You have interpreted it as “For any phenomenon X, the best explanation of X will involve interrelating descriptions at multiple levels”. You have pointed out the problem here with your McCain analogy.

    However there is another interpretation, which is “The most compelling, informative explanations of the set of all explanations of all phenomena are those which involve interrelating descriptions at multiple levels”. What this means is that though no explanation of McCain’s loss from the point of view of particle physics is likely to be helpful, the reduction of the gas laws to the kinetics of particles is (at least to Coel) more satisfying than any explanation one could ever offer for McCain’s defeat at any level. So, some phenomena are amenable to reductive analysis and some are not, but the explanations for those that are are pretty robust and the explanations for those that are not are much more subjective and uncertain.

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  36. Aravis writes in response to Coel: “In what sense is the statement ‘I believe that Disneyworld is in Orlando’ “consistent” or “inconsistent” with any statement concerning chemical compounds or statements concerning quantum particles?” Processes in the brain are way to complex for this simple kind of analysis – sort of like watching Saturday Night Live and trying to figure out how a television works.

    A statement in writing about Orlando is the product of conscious thought occurring in a unique brain in concert with many other complex processes, all very dimly understood at this time: memory, simulation of the idea, evaluation of the social implications, an executive decision to publish, motor actions to effect the decision. Any one task could occur in one or more different locations, including unconscious ones. Also involved are multiple different types of neurological structures, including tracts, nuclei and various levels in the cortex. The next level down would be the firing of action potentials and neurotransmitters across trillions of synapses. What goes on inside of neurons is another level and is anyone’s guess. This is super-callifragilistic-complex, but scientists are an undaunted lot.

    Yes, “chemical compounds or quantum particles” are involved in the generation of thoughts but they operate at a level far below the ones directly involved in generating conscious thought. Coel’s position on supervenience does seem reasonable.

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  37. Aravis (and Coel),

    I can’t resist offering a perspective on your question to Coel,

    In what sense is the statement ‘I believe that Disneyworld is in Orlando’ “consistent” or “inconsistent” with any statement concerning chemical compounds or statements concerning quantum particles?

    so I won’t! I’m no scientismist by any means, but my scientific background makes me sympathetic to some of what Coel says.

    In my experience “consistent with” means “not in contradiction to.” A consistent set of axioms, for example, do not contradict each other directly, nor do they have contradictory implications. It seems clear that ‘I believe that Disneyworld is in Orlando’ does not contradict theories concerning chemical compounds and quantum particles; I’ll spare you a detailed argument why, but needless to say we have very good evidence that a person can believe a great many things (regardless of whether or not they are true) including that Disneyworld is in Orlando, and we also have very good evidence for our theories of quantum mechanics and quantum fields, so trivially the two statements should be consistent even if neither informs the other.

    Coel states that different levels of understanding must be consistent and complementary, with which I agree. However, I prefer to think of lower levels (e.g., physics) as imposing constraints on higher level, more complex systems like birds and governments. For example, we can infer from knowledge of physics that work must be done on an object (here, a bird) to raise it against gravity, and the energy must come from somewhere. We also know that birds rely on chemical processes for the energy to do that work, and that thermodynamics tells us that no thermodynamic cycle is 100% efficient. These and other “physics factors” tell us that birds must replenish their store of chemical energy or else they will cease to fly, or otherwise function after a time. This need to replenish its energy store, and how the motion and properties of fluids (air) impose constraints on a bird’s body and motions, etc. all are important to what it means to be a bird. Beyond that, the form of a bird’s body and its method of replenishing its energy store impose constraints on a society of birds. Obviously, once the physical constraints have been met, there is a great deal of freedom in the forms birds and “societies of birds” can take; we can attribute these additional properties of birds, for example, to accident (e.g., mutation) or “higher level” constraints like those imposed by the environment/ecosystem where the bird evolved and lives.

    This example hopefully illustrates why the idea of “constraints from lower levels” seems more powerful (to me at least) than merely requiring consistency between levels of understanding. As the distance between levels of understanding increases, the constraints imposed by the lower on the higher necessarily become weaker and more general. For example, physics and chemistry impose general constraints on Disneyworld, such as what kinds of attractions it can offer (literal teleportation isn’t likely to be on the menu, for example). Biological facts about people impose stronger constraints (it’s not a good idea to build it under water without some kind of protective enclosure, or underground without some means of ventilation). And visitor psychology, economics and politics impose still stronger constraints on the “what” and “where” of Disneyworld. Although I’ve offered only toy examples, when generalizing to fields of inquiry at various levels, it seems clear the social sciences are not autonomous except in a naive sense.

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  38. Coming in late…

    Liam‘s initial comment that a neuroscience perspective seems to support the “it’s all an illusion crowd” does not ring true to me. Our perceptions are representations or reconstructions of the world with pertinent data for ourselves. It is not an illusory, even if sometimes the mechanisms can be ‘tricked’ into creating false information (an illusion).

    We can use something simple like color or temperature as examples. Starting with temperature, the feeling of ‘cold’ is a subjective representation of the world with relevance for the individual alone. There is no objective qualia of ‘cold’ in the universe, though we do know that our receptors will start firing at given ranges, because those temperatures have relevant meaning (to health) for humans. Such sensations are under normal conditions a pretty real, accurate, reflection of one’s environment (certain temps were reached).

    Of course people can have defective temp receptors or processing networks. And most of us have experienced being tricked into feeling something is ‘cold’ or ‘hot’ because of chemicals which can trigger our receptors (we seem to enjoy doing this with our food). But these are exceptions, which if understood do not eliminate the ‘reality’ of the sensation, but rather redefines the scope of what that qualia can represent.

    I think the best conceptions would be “it’s all filtered representative-experiences”, or “It’s all selective reconstructions” (or a mix and match of those two) rather than “It’s all an illusion”.

    This feeds into the discussion regarding ontology v epistemology. While maybe the selective nature of our experiences makes it possible we are all wrong about the world (it is all mistaken representations and so illusions), that doesn’t seem to have much practical bite when our sensations have consistency and utility. Matrix or Brain in Vat (BIV) scenarios are fun to think about but until one has swallowed the right pill or are fed real streams of experience one is arguably receiving accurate experiences and so relevant knowledge about the world one is actually experiencing and so living in.

    This is why I favor Massimo‘s approach of holding ontology as close to epistemology as possible… until further inputs require a revision.

    But I think we have credible examples from science where ontological considerations which cut against the grain of epistemological concerns was not only useful, but ultimately correct. Heliocentrism is a great example. While we can laugh now at those who thought the sun went around the earth, that really took a lot of work beyond what would be in accordance with the simplest (and epistemically reasonable) explanation given available evidence at the time. That might be truer for general relativity. Both of these theories preceded our ability to collect information to support them, and radically altered (our perception of) the nature of the universe. Intriguingly, I don’t see how any of our perceptions (qualia) were in error or an illusion. It was a higher level interpretation of experience (not the immediate perceptions) that were mistaken.

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  39. To Coel and DM, I think after our prior discussions I get your position on reductionism so we don’t need to go into that too much, though I think Aravis‘s example with McCain shows why I think it is less useful to rely on ‘reductionism’. And I reserve my concerns that as much as the limits of subatomic interactions can restrict what a voter might do, I think it is equally true (and more accurate to say) there are higher level concerns (i.e. voter X hates McCain) that will limit what subatomic interactions will be possible (none that lead voter X to vote for McCain).

    Perhaps it is more accurate to use the term “complementarism” or “non-contradictarianism” than “reductionism” which seems to imply higher level concerns are really reduced to lower level explanations.

    Continuing the semantic theme (and the main issue I wanted to get at), I don’t understand the argument in favor of ‘scientism’, mainly broadening the use of the term ‘science’ to cover all knowledge-building. The argument seems to be that it is ok if the person is trying to champion empirical approaches. Well in that case why not just be an ‘empiricist’? Why reach for a term representing a rather strict subset of all empirical approaches? It seems to me the only answer is political rather than practical.

    And such broad use of science does not help the public to understand what scientists are doing and what scientific evidence/theories are. I am thinking this is especially counter-productive at the moment with regard to controversies in climate change and evolutionary theory.

    To Aravis, although I am not a scientismist, I have to agree with Coel that the examples you gave of ‘a priori’ knowledge require experience. One can say of course that they have a sort of automatic truth by definition, but the knowledge of that truth still comes from experience (including setting the definitions). All triangles (in a flat plane) may contain angles adding up to 180 degrees, but that is only ‘known’ when one sees a triangle and begins testing the triangle given some arbitrarily created measure called a degree. That fact becomes more obvious when you consider triangles placed on curved surfaces.

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  40. Hi Coel,

    Suppose someone thinks they have a non-material conscious soul that tells matter what to do.

    Why? What does a non-material soul have to do with the subject in hand?

    It sounds as though you are saying that those who say “consciousness is an illusion” are really saying “It is an illusion that we have a non-material soul”. If so then they have just strayed badly off topic, confusing consciousness with a particular proposed explanation.

    It seems to me that ‘a non-material soul’ and ‘its and epiphenomenon’ are equally bad explanations for consciousness.

    But, as I said, irrelevant to the topic in hand, which is consciousness itself, not various failed explanations

    As I said “illusion” => “not as it might appear”.

    And as I said, with my pain example, saying ‘consciousness is not what it appears to be’ makes as little sense as ‘consciousness is an illusion’.

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  41. brodix: “some frames, such as physics and math, are more objective, but then they are also limited by their high degree of abstraction from being useful for dealing with the softer sciences and social concerns”

    I think this is right (and why different frames/DSLs are needed), but I’ve wondered if more objective is the right term. Perhaps they’re neater (vs. messier*).

    * e.g., languages that incorporate some paraconsistent and/or fuzzy logic.
    http://www.mathfuzzlog.org/latd2010/slides/Turunen.pdf

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  42. dbholmes,

    “Continuing the semantic theme (and the main issue I wanted to get at), I don’t understand the argument in favor of ‘scientism’, mainly broadening the use of the term ‘science’ to cover all knowledge-building. The argument seems to be that it is ok if the person is trying to champion empirical approaches. Well in that case why not just be an ‘empiricist’? Why reach for a term representing a rather strict subset of all empirical approaches? It seems to me the only answer is political rather than practical.”

    This relates to my comment earlier. I think it’s an error to try to understand scientism solely as an epistemic position, a strict empiricism or otherwise. As you suggest, and as I suggested earlier, scientism seems more a politics than an epistemology, one that, for whatever reason, seeks to undermine the societal validity of forms of knowing other than science. Such a politics could be held by someone with a non-existent epistemology who doesn’t find other forms of knowing interesting enough to keep around, or who has a personality that joins popular chauvinisms as a way to belong. Conversely, I wouldn’t regard as scientistic any strict empiricist who supports the existence of other forms of knowing on a political liberal basis. Such a strict empiricist could even be a strong critic of the content of other forms of knowing. The mark of scientism is advocating the elimination of other forms of knowing while trumpeting science.

    Aravis,

    “I see nothing that suggests that Scientism requires that one be a fan of science, as an institution, just as one can be religious — in the sense of holding religious beliefs — without being a fan of religious institutions.”

    I don’t think that analogy works. Religion has an endless variety of forms apart from institutional religion while science is a least close to intrinsically institutional. There is not an endless variety of private versions of science to be scientistic with in similarly independent way regarding institutional science. I don’t see how someone could have the attitudes constitutive of scientism while not endorsing science on some level. Perhaps you can explain?

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  43. DM wrote:

    “The most compelling, informative explanations of the set of all explanations of all phenomena are those which involve interrelating descriptions at multiple levels…”

    and

    “…some phenomena are amenable to reductive analysis and some are not, but the explanations for those that are are pretty robust and the explanations for those that are not are much more subjective and uncertain.”

    ————————————————-

    Whew. I was starting to wonder if I had entered a parallel universe, where the scientismists had suddenly turned into humanistic scholars. I’m glad to see that the claim that the physical sciences are better than the social sciences is still at the heart of the scientistic outlook.

    If this is the basis for the claim, though — sciences which admit of reductive analysis are better than those that don’t, in the sense of being more “certain” and “objective” — I’d like to hear the argument for it. As a bald statement, it just seems false. For one thing, physics doesn’t reduce to anything, so by this argument, it is more subjective and less certain than chemistry — a perverse result of the application of the principle, no? But less “trickily,” I can think of all sorts of examples, where social science explanations provide more “certain” knowledge than the physical sciences — I really don’t know what to make of your use of ‘subjective’, here, so I’m not going to speak to that. For example, I think that we know that if interest rates are high, fewer people will bother money, then we do any number of things that fall under String Theory. Ditto for any number of things, I know that fall under the category of “folk psychology.”

    —————————————————

    DM wrote:

    “Consistency in the relevant sense means that we don’t get predictions from one level of analysis contradicting predictions from another level of analysis.”

    Marty said something like this too.

    ————————————————————————

    I guess I just don’t see how the sorts of things that social scientists tell us *could* contradict the sorts of things that, say, quantum theorists or chemists tell us. DM says that “libertarian freewill” would be inconsistent, in this way, suggesting that in order to be consistent with what the physical sciences tell us, we must embrace some variety of determinism, but given what I think of the whole freewill/determinism debate, this doesn’t cut much ice. More generally, however, if this is all that the relationship between the social and physical sciences come down to, then the social sciences *are* autonomous, in every sense that those like Fodor claim it is.

    As for the further notion of “affecting constraints” that Marty indicates, I don’t see how any of the constraints imposed by quantum mechanics or solid state physics would have any effect on the folk psychological explanation of my getting on a flight to Orlando. The biological constraints he describes — it would be inefficient to build an attraction underwater — are just not apropos to the issue at hand — while the psychological and social constraints he indicates are, of course, at the social-scientific level of description and thus, pose no argument against that autonomy of the social sciences, in the sense of providing explanations of phenomena, at a certain level of description, that require no reduction to lower levels of description.

    ———————————————————————–

    Finally, re: dbholmes remarks regarding a priori knowledge, I can only say that he (she?) conflates how we learn something — seeing and testing triangular shaped objects — with the sort of justification/warrant of which it admits.

    ——————————————————————————

    Paul, re: being a scientismist and a fan of science —

    What I meant was something like this: one could believe that scientific explanations / ontologies are the only real, “Kosher” ones, without being a fan of the activities of the community of scientists — developing nuclear weapons; producing industrial chemicals; experimenting on stem cells; etc.

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  44. Correction, in the first part of my reply to DM:

    For example, I think that we know that if interest rates are high, fewer people will borrow money than we do any number of things that fall under String Theory. Ditto for any number of things I know that fall under the category of “folk psychology,” relative to things we know in String Theory.

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  45. The position you describe is essentially Indirect Realism

    The trouble, of course, is that this view leads straight into catastrophic, global skepticism.

    If anyone wants to get a picture of whether this dramatic statement is accurate, I’d recommend looking at the difference between “direct” and “indirect” realism. For most modern physicalist-type-people, the basic distinction won’t make a lot of sense (no pun intended), because – to be ridiculously brief – there’s no line to draw, physically speaking, between the process that’s *causing* our perception and the process *of* our perception. The *me* that is seeing a tree is as much a part of the transformative physical process as the tree and the sun and the fog, etc., etc.

    Most of the arguments avoiding global skepticism in either case revolve around consistency/coherence. The arguments against the consistency arguments mostly involve positing some sort of hypothetical distorting agent that we can’t know for sure doesn’t exist (basically an epistemological grounding problem). But for consistency to be maintained, the distorter itself needs to be consistent, which makes it knowable in the way we know about all the distorting/transformational aspects of perceptual systems.

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  46. Aravis,

    “What I meant was something like this: one could believe that scientific explanations / ontologies are the only real, “Kosher” ones, without being a fan of the activities of the community of scientists — developing nuclear weapons; producing industrial chemicals; experimenting on stem cells; etc.”

    True, but I wouldn’t say that this:

    “one could believe that scientific explanations / ontologies are the only real, “Kosher” ones”

    is sufficient for scientism, nor that this:

    “being a fan of the activities of the community of scientists — developing nuclear weapons; producing industrial chemicals; experimenting on stem cells; etc.”

    is necessary for scientism.

    While my second point should be obvious, the explanation for my first is that someone with that belief could be quite accepting of other ways of knowing on a societal/political level, which I think would exempt that someone from scientism.

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  47. Philip,
    That goes very much to the point I keep making about there being no absolute frame. It is both trivially true, in that we accept, even if grudgingly, we will never know all the facts and that they are different from different perspective, but also goes to the heart of much of what we assume about reality. Whether it is monotheism, or the Big Bang Theory, there is an underlaying monist assumption that there does exist some ultimate frame for reality.
    Yet if one accepts the logical parameters of reality as the absolute and the infinite, this doesn’t hold true.
    The monist assumption is that as everything is connected, it must have some primal source or first cause, but the absolute, as universal state, isn’t one, but zero. It is the equilibrium in which all form/energy is cancelled.
    (As I’ve pointed out before, the notion of a universal equilibrium isn’t considered by modern physics, but is implicit in using the speed of light as the universal constant. Given that as time stops in any frame moving at C, then the frame in which a clock runs fastest, would be closest to the equilibrium of that vacuum through which light travels at C.)
    So given this vacuum is infinite, since its existence isn’t dependent on physical properties, then there could be no first cause. Any fluctuation of this vacuum would be an effect unto itself, but not without potential precedent. Given, according to theory, this vacuum is in a perpetual state of fluctuation and as I keep pointing out, time is simply measures of its frequencies, the notion of first cause is meaningless.
    So then the question is as to what defines a single frame or entity and that becomes interaction of input and output. For instance, mass is galactic input, while radiation is galactic output and the reality we experience is the complex interaction of energy and structure/radiation and mass. We input information into our central nervous system and energy into our digestive and respiratory systems, while outputting physical waste and mental forms/thoughts, that feed back into our environment affect our future input.
    Then when we get to the nature of frames, such as the institution of science, versus the energies motivating the processes underpinning it, there is no one absolute frame. The boundaries are quite fuzzy and will change over time and from different points of view.
    Maths does try to get into these angles through topologies and multiple dimensions, as different coordinate systems interact. Sometimes they do collapse/reduce to some harder, more mass-like structure and sometimes they expand out and become more of a gaseous field of activity. I know I’m not supposed to use the term thermodynamics in these discussions, but just keep in mind that all information/structure is carried/manifested by energy and so when there is lots of energy being pumped into a certain context and it can’t expand and rise as fast as the energy being introduced, you get global warming of the political, social, cultural, population, etc. variety. Then when it finds that crack in the surrounding form, there is that sudden release of energy. Which can be quite destructive of those structures impending it, from individuals to national boundaries. That is why those carrying the bigger stick can prevail over those with a better argument. Energy and form compliment and compete.
    Which is just my way of saying that scientism is a legitimately strong assertion, but therefore bound to overstep its effective boundaries. consolidation….

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