Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Scientism: bad word, useful idea?

2014/08/10

Scientism

I really hate that word.

I first read it from someone who seemed to be looking for excuses not to accept scientific results. Rather than argue against them using science, he simply labelled the approach “scientism”. He wanted to denigrate his opponents’ reliance on evidence and reason to answer important questions. I really despise this sort of anti-intellectualism.* Some people would rather hold onto their own beliefs than find out what is true.

That was my first experience. But that is not the only context where people use the word. I’ve recently heard it used in the context of legitimate criticism (in an old episode of the apologetics podcast “Please Convince Me”). There, host J. Warner Wallace was describing and critiquing a real trend among some people.**

He describes the idea like so: “If it can’t be told to us by science then we ought not even be paying attention to it.”

The trend is the idea that “Any important truth can be addressed by science,” and its corollary that “Anything that can’t be addressed by science is unimportant.” It’s a real trend – not only among lay commentators, but among prominent scientists and philosophers. It deserves to be countered.

Why is it a problem? It’s a problem because betrays an irrational ignorance. (Ironically, the people who follow this trend pride themselves on a rational, evidence-based worldview, and would be mortified if they were seen to demonstrate irrationality or ignorance.)

For one thing, the validity of science itself (as Wallace points out) cannot be demonstrated by science. That would be circular. Rather, the methods of science derive from a particular philosophical perspective on epistemology – how we come to believe things. Now, the epistemological underpinnings of science are quite sound. One cannot reject them without rejecting most of everyday common sense. But they are not derived from science.

For another thing, much of the world of human values is separate from science. It’s true that values such as honesty, curiosity, humility, and submission to reality are deeply embedded in the philosophy and practice of science. But other human values, such as compassion, respect, and loyalty are not part of science, nor can they be validated by science. Surely these values are proper and important topics to discuss in any society.

Beyond this, a survey of prominent online dictionaries and encyclopediae indicates that the word is here to stay. Wikipedia, Dictionary.com, Oxford English Dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster all have entries describing scientism. Of course it has multiple definitions, but they all agree that one use is (to use Merriam-Webster’s formulation) “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”.

There are also scientists and other advocates of rationality that have weighed in on the value of identifying and criticizing scientism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has an article identifying scientism and contrasting it with appropriate science – even calling out beloved scientists Carl Sagan, Stephen Weinberg, and E.O. Wilson for stepping over that line. Massimo Pigliucci has weighed in here and here – in the first one he’s criticizing Steven Pinker’s wander into scientism here. I don’t wholly agree with Pigliucci’s characterization, but he has some valid points. A more prominent example of scientism may be Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, where he seems to want to define morality so that it falls under the purview of science. See this article by him outlining the position.

So, with all of this, why would anyone embrace this idea that the only important claims are scientific claims? It’s not entirely unfounded. For one thing, science does seem to be our best way of identifying true claims. If I can provide physical, repeatable, objectively-recognizable evidence supporting a claim, then everyone has good reason to accept the claim. If I can provide similarly concrete evidence contradicting a claim, then everyone has good reason to reject the claim. That’s the basis of science. To reject a truly scientific claim is equivalent to rejecting the evidence of the senses.

No other approach to knowing things is so powerful. Intuition is useful, but intuitive ideas are sometimes wrong. (How do we know this? Because we can test them. Scientifically.) Unaided reason is fun, and can point us in useful directions, but outside of abstract math and logic, unaided reason is limp without evidence to support it. (Look at how many ingenious, enjoyable, and ultimately wrong ideas the ancient Greeks had about the structure of the cosmos. And those ideas of theirs that were shown to be right? They were shown by – you guessed it – science!) Feelings, traditions, ancient writings … all of these things that people have leaned on and continue to lean on to provide insight, all of them are fallible, and all of them can be validated or invalidated by science.

In philosophy, there are ideas that cannot be tested scientifically. What is the nature of morality? What is the ultimate nature of existence? What does it mean to be conscious? Here are some questions which science cannot, even in principle, answer (although it can provide interesting and relevant clues). Philosophers can answer these questions.*** But their answers are never as robust or as compelling as the answers to scientific questions. Why should I adopt the desire-utilitarian perspective on morality? Why should I buy into the materialist metaphysical model? What’s to keep me from accepting the Cartesian dualist view of consciousness?

So I sympathize with those who conclude that science is the only way to know important things. It is certainly the way we get our most certain, unassailable beliefs. But it’s not enough, on its own, to populate a complete worldview.

If the term “scientism” is to have any legitimacy as a meaningful word (and not just a bogeyman for anti-intellectuals to sneer at), I think it must be used to identify this narrow perspective that dismisses any idea not grounded in science.

As a linguist, though, I still don’t think it’s a great term. For one thing, it carries the derogatory, anti-intellectual connotation I first identified above. It’s a word that at once denigrates another and identifies the speaker with a particular community. And for another, I just don’t think it’s a useful term to try to use more broadly. For example, what do we call someone who engages or embraces scientism? A “scientist”? Sorry, that term already has a very different meaning from what we’re discussing here. A “scientismist”? Too awkard. “Scientism-er”? Uh-uh. “Advocate of scientism”? Perhaps, but that’s not terribly felicitous.

I would love to propose my own term – perhaps explicitly formed as an antonym of “philosophy”: “misosophy” (by analogy with “philanthrope/misanthrope”). “Sam Harris is a misosophist.” “Thoughtful skeptics need to beware of falling into misosophy.”

misosophy [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fi] - the position that the only claims one should accept as true are scientific claims
misosophist [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɪst] / misosopher [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɹ] - one who asserts or accepts misosophy

I rather doubt that my coinage will catch on. It’s a bit phonotactically awkward. On the other hand, I don’t know if “scientism” can catch on either, in the useful-rather-than-simply-pejorative sense that I have suggested here.

What do you think?

————-

Footnotes

* This is a very emotional reaction, so I want to make it clear: I despise the anti-intellectual thought process, I do not despise the people who engage in it.

** I want to be clear, for those who listen to that podcast, that I do not agree with most of what J. Warner Wallace says. He rejects evolution. He thinks there is a strong evidential case for Christianity. He believes that historical claims are outside the purview of science. In other podcasts, he suggests that atheists have no way to ground their morality. I disagree with him about all of these things. But I agree that scientism as he defines it near the start of that podcast is a real thing, and it needs to be refuted.

*** I know many would say that theologians can also answer these questions. I agree that they can, but only insofar as they are acting philosophically. In fact, anyone can answer these questions, and many do. And when they do, they are doing philosophy.

Definition: free will

2013/02/05

I was listening to a skeptical podcast – the Legion of Reason, out of Calgary – and the topic of free will reared itself. It’s a fascinating topic, because (as in this case) many people who agree with me about atheism, humanism, and loads of related social positions disagree very firmly about the appropriate attitude to free will.

I would like to clarify and expand on what I have said recently on this blog about free will. First, though, I thought I would start by exploring the definition.

Like my previous definition posts, I will present how I see it free will, and point out some of the ways that people differ.

First, note that the term “free will” is made of two words. So let’s start with a simple definition:

Free will is the unconstrained (free) exercise of one’s intention to act (will).

No problem so far. But what counts as a constraint?*

This is where people differ. For me, unconstrained means that, when I have a desire to act (whatever the reason for or source of that desire), I am able to follow through.

When I want to stand up, I can. I am not tied down; I am not too weak.

When I want to go bungee-jumping, I can. I do not have a subconscious aversion preventing me from taking that last step; I do not have overly-protective parents hiding my keys to keep me from driving to the jump site.

Constraints can take the form of physical bonds, financial shortfalls, or even irresistable psychological compulsions (addiction is an interesting area for examining edge-cases in free will).

Other people – the “libertarian free will” crowd – consider that any reliable causal predictor of a decision is an intolerable constraint, undermining freedom of will. The most popular expression of this is the claim that determinism undermines free will. That is, if the universe really does operate according to immutable, universal laws of cause-and-effect that completely determine the behaviour of everything in the universe, then everything we do is physically “constrained” to a single possibility (whether or not we can ever know that possibility in advance).

I find this position odd for two reasons: the “chain-link” and the “character”.

First, even if my actions are determined in advance, it may still be the case that my intentions (part of the physical universe) are the proximate cause of my actions: I stood up because I wanted to stand up. Sure, I may have wanted to stand up because my bladder was full, which was because of all the tomato juice I had consumed earlier, which was because of that unfortunate incident with the skunk, and so on and so on to the beginning of our clockwork universe. But the immediate reason I stood up was because I chose to. It was an exercise of my will. My will is a crucial link in the great causal chain that led to the event. To me, the idea of freedom is how that link that is my intention relates to the link that is the outcome, not how it relates to all the other links.

Second, it baffles me that mere predictability is considered a defeater for free will. Just because someone can guess what I’m going to do does not make me less free. If my child cries out in pain, I run to help them. That behaviour is predictable. In fact, part of being a good parent is letting my children know deep down that I will react that way. Does that mean I am not exercising my free will when I choose to help them? Of course not. Is my obedience to traffic laws a subjugation of my free will? No, it’s an expression of it. I try to cultivate a character that leads me to behave well. This entails being predictable in a wide range of situations.

I know that there is some psychological monitor inside all of us that doesn’t like the idea of any constraint – real, practical, or metaphysical – on our behaviour. When I hear libertarian free-will advocates declaiming, I often have to step back before I see again why their arguments fall flat. But it bugs me that so few people seem to see that the aspects of freedom which are important to them in daily life do not depend on libertarian free will. It bugs me that they never seem to see the conflict between virtue – the development of a character that consistently chooses to follow predictable patterns of virtuous behaviour – and this idea of completely acausal decision-making. I think my approach above not only captures my own aesthetic preferences regarding the definitions of free will, but also the way we tend to apply the concept to our real lives. We are not worried about whether some unknowable causal chain irrevocably caused us to want to do what we did, but rather whether we were able to do what we intended.

I think the above works, regardless of whether one sees the “will” as part of the physical world (materialism) or existing in some separate realm (dualism). I also think it is essentially independent of the question of whether a god exists or not.

Though I’ve looked at free will in this way for several years, I don’t know if I’ve ever articulated this particular position. So I would like to know if you can see any obvious holes in the compatibilist position I am promoting here. Do you? If so, please let me know!

On the other hand, are there any other compatibilists out there who agree with my position? Or libertarians who find the above arguments thought-provoking?

Any theists or folks familiar with theological approaches to free will? What do you think? My impression is that most theists are libertarians, but I have heard that Calvinists and perhaps some others are determinists, and so may have some sort of compatibilist approach to free will. Or they may just deny that we have free will.

Footnote:

* I may address what is meant by “intention to act” at a later date, or in the comments if people want to bring it up. For now, I’ll just assume it’s fairly obvious.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 117 other followers