Friday, January 24, 2014

Philosophers must oppose the bogeyman called scientism

“[A]ccording to Dawkins, belief in God is childishly unreasonable. But Dawkins doesn’t enlighten us as to what aspects of the fairy philosophy of life rival the mature philosophy of Christianity,” wrote emeritus professor of biochemistry William Reville in an opinion piece titled “Philosophers must oppose arrogance of scientism” in the 16 January 2014 edition of The Irish Times. Of course he doesn't, though, because that would be absurd.

The point is that if he wanted to he could, because exactly as much is known about fairies as is about God and given enough time and literary raw material, a mature philosophy could be made out of just about any fiction. For that reason, scientism, especially used in the defense of theology, is a bogeyman, a scream in the dark at nothing more than standards of informed debate being elevated from possible speculations to verifiable facts.

Like all bogeymen, scientism cloaks itself in shadows. Where Reville writes, “Scientism comes in stronger and weaker forms. The robust form claims that science is the only valid way of seeking knowledge. The weaker doesn’t go that far, but it inappropriately applies science to a wide range of questions,” he packs an awful lot into the smoggy twilight of reasonable-sounding obscurantism.

There is, of course, a realm into which science cannot actually go. As a mathematician, it is one that is clear to me, and it is understandable that Reville would be calling to philosophers to raise the alarm about it--for it concerns some of them for a similar reason. That unscientific realm (in which we can still claim something like knowledge) is the realm of the abstract.

The catch is, mathematics and much good philosophy do not claim to be making statements about reality but rather about abstractions within axiomatic systems that are hopefully useful for providing depictions of reality. Certainly, some axioms are drawn very closely from reality, rendering the distinction difficult, but the fact stands. Those talking about the abstract are talking about the map, however good a model it makes of the terrain. Bad philosophy blurs the distinction and treats it as a bogeyman to scare away any who seek to clarify.

Reville, though, isn't even really talking about scientism, neither of the strong nor the weak types. He is using it as a shield, thus showing it to be a bogeyman. There is no indication from him that he is interested in potentially fruitful debates about how deeply science can hope to inform fields like history, limited in statistical precision by the fog of that which has been forgotten; literature, being intimately subjective; or the abstract, tethered only to reality to the degree that the underlying axioms are self-evident descriptions thereof. Reville, instead, is worried about the supernatural.

He shows his cards by harping that scientists are too quick to be “fundamentalist materialists” who argue that “the supernatural doesn’t exist and religion is nonsense.” (That religion is nonsense even granting the supernatural seems to have escaped him.) To this accusation he replies with unabashed irony, writing, “materialism [the philosophical belief that nothing exists except the material] is a philosophy that has not – and probably cannot – be proved.”

Upon this irony he heaps another, arguing, “since materialism is unproven, materialists must accept that, no matter how improbable it seems to them, there is a possibility they might be wrong and a supernatural dimension might exist.” No one, though, is under any requirement to entertain any possibility as if it is likely without evidence, something the supernatural lacks in total.

If he takes the open-minded position that accepts that at least the natural world exists, surely Reville has noticed that this street, which we have been driving along for centuries, is one-way. As neuroscientist Sam Harris aptly has pointed out, no religious explanation has ever replaced a scientific one. Wherever that leaves supernatural “explanations,” it certainly is not in the category of knowledge, unless we wish to drop the mystique and identify them as abstractions in their own right.

Astonishingly, Reville is unclear on this point and says so. “Materialists are therefore obliged to respect the position of religious people who believe in the supernatural but accept all that science has and will discover.” Twaddle! Materialists are obliged to do nothing more than remain very skeptically open to the immeasurably remote possibility of the supernatural, and in the circumstances this lands far short of commanding anything like respect. It is simply not respectable to parade unfounded speculations about as if they are knowledge.

It could be deemed madness if it weren't blindness. Reville opened his piece with “The modern world runs on science-based technology, and nobody seriously disputes the importance of science.” Except that they do. Lots of "nobodies" do, in various fashions, some holding high offices in nations like the United States. Worse, the bulk of them do it, like Reville, to patrol the collapsing fence that protects the dwindling respect for religious fancy as a claim to knowledge. They aren't often so brash as to blurt it out openly, but they, like Reville, promote ideas like the bogeyman of scientism that are corrosive to public trust in science at a time when it could hardly be more important.

Why, Reville asks, aren't philosophers causing “a storm of public protest” to oppose this bogeyman? I'd say that maybe they know better, or at least I would have if he didn't have at least one notable bedfellow in wanting to hide something dear from the harsh light of scientific inquiry. Philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Massimo Pigliucci just published his own anti-scientism piece aimed at New Atheism this week. In "New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the New Atheism Movement" published in the journal Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Pigliucci calls upon the bogeyman to condemn, with surprising scorn, New Atheism explicitly for being overtly identifiable with scientism.

Pigliucci, a noted and strident atheist, is most certainly not crying out about scientism under the banner of a theological bogeyman, but bogeyman it is still. His case seeks to protect certain halls of philosophy, if we're plain about it, from the ever-encroaching grasp of scientific understanding. In particular, Pigliucci appears mostly to want to maintain the primacy of moral philosophy with regard to the determination of human values. (If we think about it, this isn't so different from the religious motivation to protect the imagined explanation for their deontological moral values, among a few other things.) Instead of taking an attitude of letting science show for itself where it is useful, Pigliucci stands like a doorward to tell us it where it may not pass, maligning his natural allies in one of the most important debates of our time in order to do it.

As I noted above, there is no doubt that there are limits to the degrees of confidence with which we are able to claim knowledge of certain kinds--historical, artistic and literary, and philosophical--and there are realms in which science can merely hope to inform us how reflective of reality our underlying axioms are--philosophical and mathematical. There is plenty of important work left to do for philosophy in these cases, and Pigliucci tries to construe his paper as a defense of philosophy's ability to do it. He points directly at the bogeyman in the end, though, when he concludes that,
What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways--intellectual as well as experiential--in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world.
Like with Reville, Pigliucci is engaging in the banal endeavor of protecting something subjective from a purely objective treatment and then using the resulting agreement with the obvious to place a barrier around a cherished domain of thought. This is the creation of a bogeyman: scientism, the destroyer of nuance and undue respect given to bad ideas for bad reasons.

What is truly curious, though, is the matter of why Pigliucci is desperate enough to make his point that he turns to a theological point, seemingly for no better reason than to impugn specific New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger, who have dared to treat the existence of God like a hypothesis. This stretch is interesting enough to merit a lengthy aside.
The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural, by its own (human) nature, is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.
I would strongly disagree. Indeed, I think the bulk of this claim, if we are taking "supernatural" to mean that which is beyond scientific testing, to be a standard problem of confusing the abstract with a non-material real, whatever that means.

If we see abstract articles, including God, as they are, then indeed, as noted previously, science cannot really touch them. At those times, "hypothesis" is the wrong word and wrong idea. If we allow for the theological axiom, "(something people call) God exists," to pass merely as an axiom, all science can hope to do is examine the natural world for any signs of a basis for it and restrict their commentary thusly. (This isn't so strange: we already do it with the abstraction implied by the Axiom of Infinity when we wonder if any physical structures can or do exist that are infinite in scope.)

Treating God as an abstraction that proceeds from an axiom has certain consequences, of course, and one of those is to undermine at a single stroke the whole notion of God's existence in a real sense. Pigliucci seems too caught up in this line of thought to notice that God's apologists only use this axiom card as a defensive ruse and do not actually accept it. They just say they do at need.

To take theology more seriously than it deserves is to allow that God is not to be considered an abstraction but instead some actual part of reality. In this case "hypothesis" is the right word to use. Further, this "God hypothesis" can be investigated at every single intersection point where the alleged immaterial, supernatural God is said to meet the real world in which it interacts.

Since he rejects the notion that the God hypothesis is a coherent idea, surely Pigliucci thinks of God at best in the abstract. Still no devout believer does, and so when New Atheist "scientismists" are willing to treat God as a hypothesis, it is a tremendous concession by scientists to the faithful, not an attempt to usurp their "field of study." To this point Pigliucci seems surprisingly blind unless he too, as I suggest, is using it to point at a bogeyman.

And we have to wonder at this misuse of the abstract since Pigliucci remarks that we can have knowledge of facts about triangles to go on to argue that Sam Harris "needs to be much more careful" on how he handles the term "facts," as it makes for "too heterogeneous a category." Pigliucci seems unlikely to be truly confused about the distinction between what we call knowledge concerning abstract objects and knowledge of real ones, though, and so this objection seems disingenuous. It's easier to draw the conclusion that he points at a bogeyman here, at least, than that is he is making a substantive point.

For whatever validity there may be to science attempting to overassert its value as a discipline, there is a serious objection to the characterization of the phenomena called scientism. In both forms, strong and weak, these cries are raised over science—or really scientists—having the temerity (or is it curiosity?) to use science to inform us in fields that have long and proudly set themselves apart as above the reach of scientific inquiry. Many of these hallows rattle like dead leaves upon their branches, particularly those most invested in metaphysics, or meta-anything for that matter, and their clattering voice sings an anemic battle hymn for the cause of keeping blurred the line between what depends upon belief and what can be considered to be known. Leading the march is the bogeyman, scientism, meant to scare us away from the clarity of demanding good reasons before having the cheek to say that we know something about the world, and with the rest of us, philosophers must oppose it.

7 comments:

  1. "Instead of taking an attitude of letting science show for itself where it is useful, Pigliucci stands like a doorward to tell us it where it may not pass, maligning his natural allies in one of the most important debates of our time in order to do it."

    If this is what you took away, I'd suggest reading the paper again, more closely.

    You might also want to have a think about your implicit dualism between the abstract and the concrete (natural/material/whatever). To posit mathematical entities and the like as "abstract" and, by implication, apart from the "empirical" world investigated by the sciences, you've already adopted a position on what exists, which is of no help with the consistency of your claims to what exists regarding the supernatural.

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    1. I think if I were as much of a scientific pessimist as some stalwart defenders of crying scientism seem to be, I might agree with you. It's neat that you, Unknown, mention that I should read the paper again, though, because I'd suggest the same to you! Try reading between the lines this time, or maybe just read all of the lines for what they actually say. If scientific pessimism would make me see things your way, I'm not quite sure what would make me present what I see so snidely, though. That's a special kind of quality, isn't it?

      I'm not sure I have to accept implicit dualism, or any other kind, to fail to entertain notions that imaginary things are anything other than imaginary, be those purely abstract, usefully abstract, or supernatural. (I'd probably use that word, but it's connotatively charged in a way I'd rather not have to defend against.) I'll gladly be proved wrong, though, should evidence of some kind bear that out. Since I'm sympathetic to Sam Harris's "broader view of science," (see also Jerry Coyne's "science, broadly construed"), I don't think I'm asking for anything impossible.

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    2. UN: "You might also want to have a think about your implicit dualism between the abstract and the concrete (natural/material/whatever). To posit mathematical entities and the like as "abstract" and, by implication, apart from the "empirical" world investigated by the sciences, you've already adopted a position on what exists, which is of no help with the consistency of your claims to what exists regarding the supernatural."

      These kind of comments crack me up. They're always filled with a condescending, "I know something you don't know..." tone, and yet the writers never, ever seem to quite get around to revealing what it is they know, and how they know it. At the same time, they reveal a certain inflexibility of mind -- like the writer is stuck in a gestalt they can't quite switch out of, where they can only imagine a world where the natural is contingent on something like a platonic ideal / supernatural / abstraction.

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    3. I think you've confused "scientific pessimism" with a concern about an overreach of science into realms where it has no purchase. I didn't read the paper as getting at anything like an attack on science, and in fact compared to some genuinely anti-scientific thinkers I found Massimo's position quite restrained (try having a look at some of anti-realist work of the European sort to see a truly pessimistic attitude about scientific knowledge!)

      The apparent blindspot when it comes to examining any source of criticism towards science is, ironically, the point made by Massimo. "Science" is being set forth so assertively and authoritatively that it is becoming ideological, with its defenders becoming mindless slogan-hurling drones of the religious sort.

      I share Massimo's concern on this point, and I honestly didn't read the paper as anything more than this. If any context of the sort you suggest is there, surely you could lay out in a clear form, rather than the rather sketchy conclusion-jumping done in this post?

      The claims asserted in the second paragraph illustrate this nicely; you seem unaware of the conditions and suppositions that are already necessarily built into your account for you to even be able to make those claims. What evidence of the empirical sort are you ever going to find, even in principle, that would let you distinguish something "imaginary" (whatever that is!) from something "real" (whatever that is)? This is a conceptual matter that is necessarily prior to any empirical investigations.

      Of course if you're engaging on the grounds of Harris's broad view of science-as-any-reasoning, then we're really talking past one another at this point. But here, too, we find a need for conceptual clarity that is lacking when the emphasis is put on facts that science can discover; what is excluded and hidden by such a position is as important to understand as what is learned. Otherwise such a hard-line stance on knowledge leads to immense difficulties -- just see the Vienna Circle's attempt to do exactly this back in the first part of the 20th century.

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    4. "These kind of comments crack me up. They're always filled with a condescending, "I know something you don't know..." tone, and yet the writers never, ever seem to quite get around to revealing what it is they know, and how they know it. At the same time, they reveal a certain inflexibility of mind -- like the writer is stuck in a gestalt they can't quite switch out of, where they can only imagine a world where the natural is contingent on something like a platonic ideal / supernatural / abstraction. "

      Why is it that an audience so committed, on the face of it, to empirical evidence is so given over to rampant speculation about motives and psychological status of anyone who even appears to disagree with them? Not to mention the complains about "tone", which are hilarious given the dripping disdain from the NA camp towards the merest whiff of anything not "scientific".

      A commitment to Reason might be better exemplified by examining arguments, rather than haughtily psychoanalyzing opponents, dismissing them as ridiculous, and otherwise abandoning any attempt at charitable engagement.

      Or has Reason transformed itself to telling others what they find funny, without a shred of argument?

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    5. AC, do you have a point to make?

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  2. James said: "Since I'm sympathetic to Sam Harris's "broader view of science," (see also Jerry Coyne's "science, broadly construed"), I don't think I'm asking for anything impossible."

    If the claim "science can answer the questions of human ethics/morality" really means "science and philosophy can answer the questions of human ethics/morality" as per Harris' broadening of the term, then his argument is correct by definition. But then, who would care? It becomes a trivial claim - a deepity - about the current human endeavour to understand ourselves and the universe.

    The bolder claim, that science *alone* can determine human values, is traditionally what is meant by scientism. And on this view there is a legitimate criticism to be leveled that the empirical data alone under-determines what we ought to do. Facts and observations *by themselves* can't do anything to tell us what to do - we have to care about the content of those facts for that. We have to desire something.

    But will any desire do? It doesn't seem so. So how do we tell good desires from bad desires? We have to adopt a philosophical position on what the nature of 'goodness' and 'badness' is. <-- THAT can't be done empirically. As soon as you do that ("The good is the well-being of conscious creatures") you're doing philosophy. And if you don't realise you're doing it, you're doing philosophy badly.

    Where you get into trouble is when you have conflicting values, and have to decide which take precedent over the others. Imagine a public health scenario where you have to choose to help one disadvantaged group over a more privileged group, where the "well-being" favours helping the privileged group. Should you do this? And if you do, what message does that send to others about your view of the disadvantaged?

    In public health considerations like this we must balance the valuing of 'health', 'fairness', 'autonomy', and 'just desert'. Along comes 'well-being' to save the day. But how exactly? We can say that these values are all components of well-being (a trivial philosophical claim, but one nonetheless that needs arguing for), but that doesn't tell us all we need to know. Are they equally part of it? And if they aren't (something we'd have to argue for - philosophy again) how are we to determine what ratio of weighting each is meant to have? How do we reconcile the contradictory results derived between moment-to-moment measures of happiness, and delayed-response queries on past happiness? Which should take precedence? (Another philosophical quandary).

    Invoking 'future brain scanners' and giving a wave of the hand won't cut it. Someone might say that we'd measure their flourishing and derive the component values from that. But that would be begging the question, because we can't measure the total without the component parts being defined so we know what to measure. So we're stuck with a nebulous, poorly-defined fuzzy concept, and a promissory note that it will become clearer and quantifiable in the future. Never mind that this all takes place against the background of assuming consequentialism is the only ethical game in town: another philosophical claim. (Every ethical theory cares about consequences of some kind, but consequentialism reduces ALL concerns to consequences).

    No matter which way you slice it, the scientific enterprise needs philosophy to carve out its mission statement on every project it engages in (and to determine which projects are worthy of engagement in the first place - a value judgment!). Similarly, philosophy needs science to churn out empirical findings as grist for the conceptual mill. This isn't a turf war, or a grudge match. It's a symbiotic relationship.

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