Tuesday, November 3, 2015

'Scientism!'

SCIENTISM: here's the final paragraph of the chapter I just finished which will appear in Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry's forthcoming tome Science Unlimited.

I have provided three illustrations of how the charge of scientism is made in a baseless and indeed irrelevant way against some critics of religious and/or supernatural beliefs. It is not difficult to find many more. In the hands of some - including many theologians - the charge of 'scientism!' has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing, allowing - in the minds of those making the charge - for criticisms to be casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there's plenty that does lie within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims. However, because the mantra 'But this is beyond the ability of science to decide' has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it has become heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People now just assume it's true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The phrase has become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears its head. When believers are momentarily stung into doubt, there are those who lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: 'Ah yes, we forgot - this is beyond the ability of science to decide.... zzzz.'

17 comments:

Paul P. Mealing said...

I know I'm reading this out of context, but there really are limits to what we can know and Noson Yanofsky covers them quite comprehensively in an excellent book titled The Outer Limits of Reason; What Science, Mathematics, and Logic CANNOT Tell Us.

Personally, I find arguments between science and religion bordering on the absurd. I am just reading an autobiographical essay by Einstein written quite late in his life where he describes the revelation he experienced at 12 years old, from reading popular science books, that the stories in the Bible could not be true - something I can also relate to. Yet, in his own way, with his fascination for Spinoza, Einstein considered himself religious.

Epistemologically, there can be no comparison between science and religion, so that only becomes an issue with religious fundamentalists, who can argue, for example, that God could stop the world spinning for Joshua without doing any harm - no scientist would give that even a scintilla of thought.

But science does not replace religion if religion be considered something deep and personal that one seeks to give meaning to one's life. It's for this reason that I find the argument of science vs religion absurd, because they deal with different things.

Regards, Paul.

Brain Molecule Marketing said...

The charge of “scientism” irrational belief in “science” is just a bad faith/dishonest rhetorical trick and pop(ular) trope of philosophers and other marketers/sales people of magical ideas. By definition, "science,” or really evidence-based claims and statements cannot be faith-based. They must be falsifiable and supported by inter-subjective facts and data - the most reliable being peer-reviewed.

Any “-ism” is an ideology and, again, by definition not ideological statement can be proven or unproven. Thus, nothing in philosophy can ever be proven or disproven, nor in religion, fairy tales, voodoo or most of the humanities, social science including economics.

In fact, there is no such unified set of behaviors that can be labeled “science” - it is a journalistic rhetorical short-cut, increasingly used in bad faith and dishonestly. There are general behaviors but they vary and are largely opportunistic that follow “scientific” cultural norms and beliefs. Again, peer-review is one. The so-called “philosophy of science” is a myth.

finally, since nothing faith-based can ever be proven or disproven, since there is no factual basis we can characterize faith-based claims as simple lies since they include no qualification for truth-testing. Not just religion-voodoo-magical claims but philosophy as well - and economics, history, etc.

“…60 percent of senders adopt deceptive strategies by sending favorable message when the true state of the nature is unfavorable. Nevertheless, 67 percent of receivers invest conditional upon a favorable message.

Paul P. Mealing said...

At the risk of becoming a nuisance, this topic irritates me because it alludes to a schism between science and philosophy. I find that in a lot of debates and arguments, one reads or views, between theologians and philosophers, in particular, that their knowledge of science is little more than rudimentary, therefore, when it comes to science and its limits, they really don't know what they're talking about.

On the other side of the same coin, many scientists who dismiss religion are equally dismissive of philosophy. Yet philosophy and science are bedfellows and have been for centuries, no millennia. Philosophy takes off where science stops, even though, over time, science encroaches on philosophy without ever completely displacing it.

I came across a passage by W. Mark Richardson, "A Skeptic's Sense of Wonder", Science, 1998, using the following metaphor, which I've often conjured up myself.

"As the island of knowledge grows, the surface that makes contact with mystery expands.. newly uncovered mysteries may be humbling and unsettling, but it is the cost of truth. Creative scientists, philosophers and poets thrive at this shoreline."

The island is science and the ocean is the infinity of unknown knowledge and the shoreline is philosophy.

Morgan said...

Stephen, how does what you're saying square with Michael Sherman's position as expressed in his "The Shamans of Scientism" (http://www.michaelshermer.com/2002/06/shamans-of-scientism/)? Unless I'm misreading him, he seems to be arguing that far from being a dead criticism, scientism is a positive thing and something to be praised.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Morgan,

Interesting to read Shermer's tribute to Hawking in his 60th year, and his allusion to science replacing mythology:

First, cosmology and evolutionary theory ask the ultimate origin questions that have traditionally been the province of religion and theology.

Just prior to opening my emails, whilst having my morning caffeine fix at my local cafe, I was re-reading John Barrow's New Theories of Everything, a second edition (2007) with the original published in 1990. In his opening pages he spends 2 short chapters discussing 'myths' and 'creation myths', in particular, by way of introduction to his topic on scientific explanations for the same apparent phenomena: the origins and fundamental causes of the Universe.

I remember when I studied philosophy academically, to my surprise, I came across at least one lecturer who ran a course based on the implied premise that all knowledge was relative and, in this context, science was just the latest religion with scientists (like Hawking) being the new priests or 'shamans' (to borrow Shermer's term). I railed against this position, having spent a lifetime studying science (I was approaching 50 when I undertook this course). I would never use the term 'scientism', yet Shermer's use, given the context, seems perfectly reasonable.

I've always assumed that scientism is a view that anything that doesn't come under the purview of science (can't be investigated scientifically) should not even be considered, let alone discussed. I don't think this is what Shermer is referring to, and I'm unsure what Stephen's view is, except that he obviously sees it as a putdown by some theologians.

Regards, Paul.

Al de Baran said...

Scientism is science’s Caliban-like cousin, an ugly transformation of a method into a metaphysics. Scientism refers to the self-refuting idea that the only valid knowledge is scientific knowledge; that scientific methods can and should have the final word regarding all questions; that scientific methods are, or should be, the ultimate arbiters of all that is real and unreal, true and false--and that they can “explain” things in some ontological, as opposed to merely social or consensual, sense. Scientism arrogates to scientists the same authority that religious worshippers grant to priests. It's in the OED, as well.

Spiritualess said...

Hi Al de Baran,

It's not self refuting! Scientism is a Philosophy. It can make determinations about Philosophy (or the Philosophy of Science) without being refuted by Science and it's discoveries.
If Philosophy was something in the real world that could be observed and measured then it would be open to refutation by Science. Likewise if Science wasn't something we defined with Philosophy then it wouldn't be something we can categorise using Philosophy.

Regarding the Article Professor Law, saying the Universe is Fine Tuned for Life when the percentage of habitable Universe is less than 0.000000000000000000000002289% is plainly absurd.

Spiritualess said...

On the subject of scientism (and little scandal) The University of Tennessee has a "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" which includes an article on "New Atheists"(!) http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/

If that wasn't strange enough the article is written by a Christian Apologist. http://www.westmont.edu/_academics/departments/philosophy/james-e-taylor.html

Needless to say almost everything in the article is wrong and one of the claims is that all New Atheists are Scientism advocates.

Stephen Law said...

Gosh that is a little scandal Spiritualess.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Spiritualess,

All the cosmologists that I’ve read would readily concur that the Universe is ‘fine-tuned’ in the sense that there are a number of parameters that are ‘just right’ for intelligent life to evolve. I’m not sure where or how someone can calculate the figure you site to such accuracy, so I would agree that claiming such a figure is somewhat absurd, but the principle of a fine-tuned Universe is not.

Not sure if you can access this, but it covers the subject very well.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Sorry 'site' should be 'cite'.

Henrik Larsson said...

Thanx for all you great work Mr. Law.

Really look forward to this book!
Big fan of Pigliucci and try to read much of his stuff..

Care to comment on a short question below? Anyone else?
I am tacking this onto some of the useful comments above about epistemological claims
in hope for some constructive feedback.

A useful distinction or two seem useful somewhere around here.

1. Thinking Science is good
2. Weak Scientism
3. Strong Scientism.

Most people seem to think that science is good, at least if you look at how they live.
But in either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy which is a problem to me.
Weak scientism seems to wants the natural sciences to be the gold standard in all matters epistemic, and
philosophy’s role in there is MIA. 
I have problem with that, but the one I really take issue with is number three.

Strong Scientism is the philosophical position that all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge.
The problem here seems obvious. 
Contrary to some sloppy advocates like Krauss, Shermer and the like (and Steven Pinker in that dreadful essay named ”Science is not your enemy”), the philosophical thesis of strong scientism is in no form an item of science in itself, but a philosophical epistemological position.
It can not be proved with science and so it seems to falls on the sword of science itself as one cannot claim to know that strong scientism is true if it is true.  For if it is true, then the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge.  Which is indeed self-destructive and generally seems an awfully weak argument.

Surely if there are any purely rational insights into aesthetic, moral or logical issues
then strong scientism at the very least is simply not a good idea? 
Any takers?
Best wishes for 2016

Paul P. Mealing said...

In a comment above I cite a book by Noson Yanosky, The Outer Limits of Reason, which explains pretty comprehensively how there will always be things we don't know.

Godel's Incompleteness Theorem effectively tells us that this is true for mathematics: no matter how much maths we know there will always exist mathematical 'truths' that can't be proven. To the extent that science has become more dependent on mathematics, since Galileo and Newton, I think one can safely argue that there is no end to science. Every scientific theory I'm aware of is incomplete. This leaves lots of room for philosophy, epistemologically. If one looks at the frontiers of science: cosmology, neuroscience, quantum mechanics, evolution; there are a lot of words written speculating about the future of knowledge. Surely, this is philosophy. Basically, one can't do science without philosophy.

Regards, Paul.

Henrik Larsson said...

After reading the thread again, I should perhaps clarify and add that I do agree with what Stephen Law writes in the opening post of incorrect uses of the term "scientism" to defend various dubious positions against scientific review.

But just as "communist" can be used both pejoratively and correctly, so can "scientism".
It has a useful place in the discourse of all things epistemological and specifically in philosophy of science.

I am arguing that scientism _also_ has pretty clear definitions that I gave short versions of above and can have a perfectly valid use as a correct description of certain scenarios and views.
It can and should be used when scientists for example make claims they say are based in science that are really philosophical claims. Or perhaps even when science over-reaches, or is used in dubious political contexts where the science may be good but the intentions are naive or outright nefarious, hidden under the pretty useful nice-sounding word "scientific".

Speaking of which, Massimo Pigliucci wrote an excellent piece this a while back that I think argues along those lines in the context of that infamous Pinker article:
http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.se/2013/08/steven-pinker-embraces-scientism-bad.html

Paul P. Mealing said...

Really good blog, Henrik. Thanks for the link.
Paul.

Henrik Larsson said...

Paul,

You're welcome.
Sadly, Massimo is not blogging there anymore as he is focusing on other stuff, but plenty of good posts there to read still.
Yes, really looking forward to the book that Stephen Law mentions in OP ;)

Paul P. Mealing said...

Yes, I noticed that so I chased him down.
Plenty of good posts, as you say.

Thanks, Paul.