More Silliness About Scientism, Part One

Massimo Pigliucci is going on about scientism again. His target — surprise! — is Lawrence Krauss, specifically this exchange between Krauss and philosopher Julian Baggini, published in The Guardian.

When I first became aware of “scientism,” a while back, it was invariably a charge leveled by religious people at scientists. To be accused of scientism was to be accused of being insufficiently respectful of religion. More specifically, it was to be accused of not acknowledging religious “ways of knowing,” as legitimate. Since I don’t think religious ways of knowing should be accorded any respect at all, I tended to think that scientism was a fine thing to be guilty of.

It seemed obvious to me then, and still seems obvious to me now, that the only reliable way of obtaining knowledge about the physical world is by applying the common sense investigative techniques that everyone applies in their everyday lives. You gather the facts, formulate theories, test your theories by acquiring more facts, and so on. Since these methods obtain their most precise and fruitful applications in the work of scientists, it seems reasonable to say that science is the only way of knowing.

But it turns out that when you say such a thing, certain humanities professors get their feelings bruised. Apparently it’s some great insult to suggest that historians, say, behave like scientists in doing their work. Pretty soon you find yourself arguing endlessly over arbitrary definitions of what science is, and, even worse, getting involved in petty academic turf wars. Fine then. I’m not interested in having that argument. So let’s just agree that what really matters is that you have solid justifications for any knowledge claim you make, and that the distinctively religious approaches to knowledge are entirely unreliable. Grant me that, and I will be happy. Then we can avoid hackneyed debates about the precise boundaries of what is science and what is not.

That said, Pigliucci sure has some strong opinions about those boundaries. At the end of his post he writes:

This appears to be a widespread assumption among scientists, recall for instance Jerry Coyne’s argument that plumbing is a science because it deals with empirical evidence, which plumbers use to evaluate alternative “hypotheses” concerning the causal mechanism of your toilette’s clog. But there is a fallacy of equivocation at work here, as the word “science” should be used in one of two possible meanings, but not both: either Krauss, Coyne et al. mean that (a) science is any human activity that uses facts to reach conclusions; or they mean that (b) science is a particular type of social activity, historically developed, and characterized by things like peer review, granting agencies, complex instrumentation, sophisticated analytical tools etc.

(b) is what most people — including most scientists — mean when they use the word “science,” and by that standard plumbing is not a science. More importantly, philosophy then can reasonably help itself to facts and still maintain a degree of independence (in subject matter and methods) from science.

If we go with (a), however, some nasty consequences ensue. Besides the fact that we would have to grant the title of scientist to plumbers, it would follow that I am doing “science” every time I pick the subway route that brings me somewhere in Manhattan. After all, I am evaluating hypotheses (the #6 train will let me get to 86th Street at the corner with Lexington) based on empirical evidence (the subway map, the directly observable position of the stations with respect to the Manhattan street grid, and so on). You can see, I hope, that this exercise quickly becomes silly and the word “science” loses meaning.

“Nasty” consequences? That’s a strong word. Certainly if you describe someone as a scientist, or say they are doing science, then most people will assume you are referring to someone in a lab coat. But saying that someone is behaving scientifically creates no such confusion and is a perfectly common way of speaking. I would not quite say that plumbing is a science, but I would certainly say that plumbers behave scientifically.

I have previously used the example that someone who tries to find their missing car keys by retracing his steps is taking a scientific approach to the problem of finding his keys. A nonscientific approach to the same problem would be to pray to God for guidance regarding the location of the keys. You might argue that this is a silly example, since even the most hardened religious fundamentalist would take the scientific approach in this case. Indeed, but that is precisely the point. The methods of science are so obviously reliable and natural that we all apply them routinely in our daily lives. It was precisely this sort of consideration that led Thomas Huxley to say:

Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only as far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club.

Quite right. It is doubtful that modern philosophers of science have improved on this definition. (Leaving aside the politically incorrect reference to “a savage”, of course).

If my car keys example is too trivial, then simply consider a weightier question, such as the best way of treating an illness. There is no shortage of people who routinely turn to religion and superstition in this context. Suddenly it’s not so silly to point out that there are reliable and unreliable ways of obtaining knowledge, with science on the right side and everything else on the wrong side. And that’s why Pigliucci’s charge that, “…this exercise quickly becomes silly and the word “science” loses meaning.” is itself silly. This usage of “science” rules out all sorts of other approaches that people actually use: religious experiences, divine revelation, the authority of clerics, gossip and anecdotes on questions requiring technical expertise, astrology, and countless other pseudosciences, for example. There is nothing silly about emphasizing the superiority of science relative to these other methods.

Pigliucci does not really disagree with any of that, I suspect. He’s as outspoken as anyone against religion and pseudoscience. So what are we really arguing about here? I think it’s reasonable to group the good investigative methods under the label “science,” while he thinks that’s an unreasonable overextension of the word. Whatever. Do you see what I mean about this debate often dissolving into pointless semantical games?

We have not yet reached the main issues, but since this post just crossed the thousand word mark with no end in sight, I think I we’ll just call this part one and come back to it in a subsequent post. So long for now!

Comments

  1. #1 Malcolm Dean
    San Francisco
    September 20, 2012

    No less an authority than Wikipedia states that scientism “is a term used, usually pejoratively,[1][2][3] to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.[4] The term frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism[5][6] and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,[7] philosophers of science such as Karl Popper,[8] and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam[9] to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.[10]” (I’ll leave you to look up the footnotes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientism)

    The point being, not a religious fanatic in sight. But your gradual slide into “it seems reasonable to say that science is the only way of knowing” seems to fit the description of scientism to a tee.

  2. #2 JimR
    September 20, 2012

    I like splitting use of knowledge from pursuit of knowledge and not defining that by prior intent. In your example in paragraph 3: “…applying the common sense investigative techniques that everyone applies in their everyday lives”; I consider that to be following a decision tree, much like I might use a troubleshooting guide to determine why my mower won’t start. Yes you “gather facts” when you test alternatives, but there was no prior theorizing.

    I like to think of science as the active pursuit of new knowledge. It seems there should be a better term for using a body of knowledge rather than adding to the body.

    I agree that historians should never be accused of being scientists. Looking back in time they select a narrative path and winnow out billions of antecedent actions that contributed to the event(s) being reported. They pick a thread that allows for a smooth narrative explanation of causation that is only in their mind’s eye.

  3. #3 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “It seems there should be a better term for using a body of knowledge rather than adding to the body.”

    Engineering?

  4. #4 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    Thing is there are no “scientismists”. There isn’t a single one who doesn’t believe there is nothing other than what is measurable.

    Honesty.
    Sadness.
    Happiness.
    Grief.
    Infinity (for crying out loud, BY DEFINITION not measurable)
    Darkness.
    Coldness.
    Stillness.

  5. #5 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “But your gradual slide into “it seems reasonable to say that science is the only way of knowing” seems to fit the description of scientism to a tee.”

    Nope, it is no different than saying “It seems like you’re making this point up”.

    You can prove that this seeming is incorrect, but you’d have to demonstrate it.

    You haven’t.

  6. #6 Kevin
    September 20, 2012

    Following up to JimR and Wow: yes, the plumber is an engineer, using an accumulated body of knowledge and experience to, more or less, follow a decision tree to unclog the plumbing (“I’ll bet if I push just a little bit harder, it’ll come right unstuck!”). A scientist would be trying to better understand the mechanisms of clogging (“what happens if I flush this rotten apple?”). Both approaches are empirically based, but flushing random stuff is a quest for new, rather than the application of existing, knowledge. (And it’s more fun, until you have to call the plumber, but the plumber will have your detailed experimental notes to work from so it shouldn’t be too bad.)

  7. #7 MNb
    September 20, 2012

    “if a question isn’t amenable to scientific solution, it is not a serious question at all.”
    Strawman – and a big one. What Baggini really says is this: “don’t be so d****d skeptical towards the questions we philosophers and theologians formulate!” Frankly I think we should be extra skeptical towards philosophy and theology exactly because they don’t use empiry. For instance I think Baggini is right when he says that science can’t answer moral questions. But if Krauss wants to try it, why not?

    “we might be too quick to turn over important philosophical issues to scientists prematurely”
    Blaming the victim. If a philosopher would like to study the philosophical consequences of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty no physicist anywhere in the world will try to prevent him/her, will not be capable to prevent him/her. Get off your lazy ass, Baggini, do some hard work to understand modern physics and write a book about the philosophical consequences (more hard work). It might become a classic.

  8. #8 david
    September 20, 2012

    “it would follow that I am doing “science” every time I pick the subway route that brings me somewhere in Manhattan.”

    Only if you use evidence to make your route selection, and modify your methods based on whether the train gets you to the right spot or someplace else.

    If you pick the route by praying that the next train you see will get you where you want to be, and continue doing that even when repeated experience shows you being dumped randomly in the wrong parts of town, then you’re not doing “science.” That method would be closer to religion.

  9. #9 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “follow a decision tree to unclog the plumbing (“I’ll bet if I push just a little bit harder, it’ll come right unstuck!”).”

    That decision is based on past empirical knowledge and the accumulation of same from other previous plumbers.

    Faith healers, meanwhile, follow a decision tree to “heal the sick” by laying hands on some poor deluded nutcase and saying “PRAISE JEYZUUUS!!!”.

    However, they never check to see whether this process works and abandon it if it is found not to.

  10. #10 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “I think Baggini is right when he says that science can’t answer moral questions. But if Krauss wants to try it, why not?”

    Here’s the problem: philosophy can’t answer it either.

    Not without science.

    Because if philosophy came up with a proposal for an answer to a moral question, how do you confirm that answer, as opposed to the myriad others out there, is the right one?

    By a process that looks like science.

    And tentative acceptance or rejection based on the results of empirical testing.

    Just like science.

    But when this is asked to be done, the lazy idiot pseudo-philosopher throws their toys out of the pram and screams “DON’ WANNA! SCIENTISM! WAAAAAAHHHHHH!”.

  11. #11 MNb
    September 20, 2012

    “Apparently it’s some great insult to suggest that historians, say, behave like scientists in doing their work.”
    They do. Richard Overy, Ian Kershaw and Jona Lendering (on Antiquity), to name a few, are nothing but impressive due to their scientic approach. They formulate hypotheses, mend them into a consistent theory and check them against the known facts. If that ain’t scientific I don’t know what is.

    “plumbers behave scientifically”
    The consequences are much nastier when they don’t..

    “would take the scientific approach in this case”
    I think most people would not. Most try a sort of random approach first and only when it fails turn to the scientific approach. On this point I disagree somewhat with JR; science is very often counterintuitive. So I’m not sure if Huxley’s description is satisfying.
    Btw a good philosopher imo should recognize that trivial examples are good examples, exactly because they clarify.

    “So what are we really arguing about here?”
    If I may speculate, I’d say territorial instinct. Baggini sees science as a threat towards his job.

  12. #12 david
    September 20, 2012

    Perhaps we should say that science is the use of the scientific method in the pursuit of new knowledge. That definition excludes plumbing & train selection, and also excludes engineering — even though those admirable activities may use the scientific method (hypothesis, observation, test, revision), the purpose isn’t “new knowledge” but rather the solution of a practical problem.

  13. #13 JimR
    September 20, 2012

    How about empiricism for engineering?

    Also historians search the written record and whatever archaeological digs and that is scientific to a very limited extent. My problem with their “findings” is that it ignores the billions of facts that were never recorded. The effects of millions of butterflies.

  14. #14 Kevin
    September 20, 2012

    The pejorative use of the term “scientism” implies that some facts about humanity are known only because the inquirer is himself human. For example, while “gold” can be objectively defined as a chemical element, “money” has a subjective interpretation. We can, however, make informed decisions about money.

    It appears to me that dismissal of the term “scientism” may be related to a desire to undermine belief in God by denying that which makes us uniquely human (or “in God’s image”, as Judaists and Christians would say).

    The absurdity of the scientistic approach may be illustrated by considering that a mother may instinctively know that her baby’s tears indicate that he is sad, rather than waiting until a peer-reviewed study has established the statistical significance of lachrymal effusions among the local population of newborns.

  15. #15 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “It appears to me that dismissal of the term “scientism” may be related to a desire to undermine belief in God by denying that which makes us uniquely human”

    You mean our ability to reason?

    That’s what godbotherers are doing when they make up perjorative claims of “scientism”.

    “The absurdity of the scientistic approach”

    What? ANOTHER made-up perjorative term???

    “rather than waiting until a peer-reviewed study”

    Unless of course, after investigating the situation the baby is in and deciding that the reason for the tears are because the baby is sitting on a sharp object.

    You know, the scientific approach ANY DESERVING MOTHER would use rather than fall back on the lazy “Oh, years, means sad.” assumption.

    Of course, what would the non-scientisstic approach be? Assume the baby is sad because the first thing you thought it was was unhappyness?

    How is giving the child a sweetie going to remove the pain of sitting on a sharp toy?

  16. #16 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “My problem with their “findings” is that it ignores the billions of facts that were never recorded”

    If they have never been recorded and were in the past nobody alive was present to witness, then how do you know there are ANY facts at all?

  17. #17 eric
    September 20, 2012

    MNb:

    “So what are we really arguing about here?”
    If I may speculate, I’d say territorial instinct.

    I’d tend to agree. Particularly given the shift in University budgets and funding over the past couple of decades, humanities (and other) departments and disciplines are looking for ways to emphasize what unique and special techniques and thoughts they bring to the table. By calling pretty much all empiricism a form of science, one is subtly signaling that students really only need to study science to get the tools of empiricism, which they can then apply to other fields. History, philosophy, etc. becomes (scientific investigative technique + specialized background knowledge). When students view the world like that, what classes and subjects are they going to think are most important? Well, its obvious. The classes that teach you that investigative technique, because its common to all the other disciplines.

    Now, that is not anything like the message Jason is trying to give. But I think its the message that people opposing him (and Krauss) are hearing. To the people for whom ‘scientism’ is a nasty word, the labels and words matter because they may affect enrollment numbers and department budgets.

  18. #18 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    Yes, David, that works.

    However, it won’t work for the woomeisters because they won’t be able to whine about scientism and scientistic or any other made-up word they want to label something they have just made up as a strawman to attack a group of people who want these losers to define how they know what they claim is fact.

  19. #19 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “When students view the world like that, what classes and subjects are they going to think are most important?”

    There’s a honking big counter to this manufactured fear.

    Within science itself.

    In theory, physics WILL answer ANY question from biology to chemistry to astronomy or any other science.

    Just like in mathematics you can derive all the derivatives you will ever encounter by deriving from first principles.

    However, NEITHER is done.

    Because that way of doing the work is entirely wasteful even if we are certain enough of the mathematics and interactions that pertain to even start.

    Chemists don’t give a flying fudge about the quantum interpretation of electron shells. They care about how many electrons and how tightly bound they are in the outer shell.

    Biologists couldn’t give a fudge about the propagation of electromagnetic waves from chemical interactions. They care about the potassium chemistry in the neural pathways.

    Each realm does science with the tools that make most sense for that realm.

    NONE of them bother with solving the Schroedinger Equation for the entire state of the entity under observation and determining the eigenvalues that result from it. Not even 99.99% of physics does that.

    So you learn science method from History using science that is appropriate to History.

    Why on earth would a historian think that physics is so very very important just because they can both use the same methods for determining the validity of any purported fact?

  20. #20 proximity1
    September 20, 2012

    Your comments appear to imply that only those we could call “cranks” inveigh against this “scientism”. I don’t know if that is your intent or merely my misinterpretation of your point. But, for those who may not be aware, others, including one as respectable as the ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, criticized scientism. (See, for example, his The Waning of Humaneness

    Another critic of scientism was Neil Postman:

    Excerpted from Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman (at page 161-162):

    “This, then, is what I mean by Scientism. It is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called ‘science’ can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like ‘What is life, and when, and why?’ ‘Why is death, and suffering?’ ‘What is right and wrong to do?’ ‘What are good and evil ends?’ ‘How ought we to think and feel and behave?’ It is Scientism on a personal level when one says, as President Reagan did, that he personally believes that abortion is wrong but we must leave it to science to tell us when a fetus enters life. It is Scientism on a cultural level when no scientist rises to demur, when no newspaper prints a rebuttal on its ‘science’ pages, when everyone cooperates, willfully or through ignorance, in the perpetuation of such an illusion. Science can tell us when a heart begins to beat, or movement begins, or what are the statistics on the survival of neonates of different gestational ages outside of the womb. But science has no more authority than you do or I do to establish such criteria as the ‘true’ definition of ‘life’ or of human state or of personhood. Social research can tell us how some people behave in the presence of what they believe to be legitimate authority. But it cannot tell us when authority is ‘legitimate’ and when not, or how we must decide, or when it may be right or wrong to obey. To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.”

  21. #21 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “others, including one as respectable as the ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, criticized scientism.”

    You can also find people criticising the actions of Superman.

    “This, then, is what I mean by Scientism…..”

    But if that scientism doesn’t exist in reality, then what the hell is he complaining about?

  22. #22 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    September 20, 2012

    To be accused of scientism was to be accused of being insufficiently respectful of religion. More specifically, it was to be accused of not acknowledging religious “ways of knowing,” as legitimate.

    This form of the “scientism” labeling appears to me to be a false dichotomy. Suppose we grant that their might be other “ways of knowing” than science. What does any religion do to establish that their religion constitutes such a way of knowing? What “knowledge” has any religion ever produced, other than by using science?

    The rest of Pigliucci’s post seems to be about “science” vs. “Science,” which is uninteresting.

  23. #23 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called ‘science’ can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like ‘What is life, and when, and why?’”

    Which are, along with the rest of the waffle, have nothing to do with moral nor indicate any claim to moral authority.

    Postman here is completely and utterly confused here.

    Just whining because he’s butthurt that he’s not being given a pass by people who are rational.

  24. #24 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    Oh, I see.

    He’s an anti-woman idiot who demands that a woman’s womb is the man’s and is pissed off that he can’t just put his judeo-christian beliefs into the secular laws of the USA.

  25. #25 eric
    September 20, 2012

    Bouffant – a very good point. When someone argues that there may be other ways of knowing, the answer “in principle, sure – but your way doesn’t appear to be one of them” is just as good as “I don’t see any evidence for other ways.”

  26. #26 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 20, 2012

    Wow –

    I really don’t understand why you feel the need to comment excessively on post after post, but please knock it off. Limit yourself to one or two comments per day. I’ve warned you about this before, but lately you’ve been especially out of control.

  27. #27 Ougaseon
    September 20, 2012

    So glad I’m not the only one who thought that the end of Massimo’s essay was badly off the mark. As he is no doubt aware, words can have different meanings in different contexts, so his claim that ‘science’ can’t have two different meanings is baseless. Consider the word ‘sense’ as in perception (i.e. sense of smell) vs ‘sense’ as in meaning (ie ‘his argument makes no sense). It can even be a verb! And the ideas communicated by these different senses remain understandable to the reader.

    It doesn’t help that his phrasing of how nasty it is to grant a plumber the title scientist smells rather classist.

  28. #28 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    That’s OK, Jason. There’s no need for you to understand it. I mean I don’t understand why you let windy miller drone on and on and on about completely pointless bolllocks.

    Ougaseon, I thin it is rather elevating. A plumber can and DOES use the scientific method to improve his work. There is no Ivory Tower here, ANYONE can do it.

    Just a lot of people who don’t want to.

  29. #29 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “but lately you’ve been especially out of control.”

    Sorry, trying to feel any remorse.

    Can’t.

  30. #30 Kevin
    September 20, 2012

    There are two Kevin’s here. The second said “The absurdity of the scientistic approach may be illustrated by considering that a mother may instinctively know… rather than waiting until a peer-reviewed study has established…” No. Just like the plumber, the mother is an engineer, following, as Wow suggests, a decision tree (although her accumulated body of knowledge is perhaps biologically hardwired). The plumber doesn’t rely on peer-reviewed research either (people have been doing this sort of engineering since long before the invention of the peer-reviewed research journal).

    One could easily question the reliability of the mother’s decision tree compared to the plumber’s – and that question could be answered by science, once it has been formulated in more detail. Perhaps, in some cases, the dismissal of science is because of laziness; it takes more effort to pose a well-defined question than to make stuff up or to get “meaning” from a religious text.

  31. #31 Wow
    September 20, 2012

    “There are two Kevin’s here. ”

    Fair enough. You may get what appears to be friendly fire, though.

    (maybe we need a number system like the Welsh Guards in Zulu…)

  32. #32 MNb
    September 20, 2012

    @JimR: “My problem with their “findings” is that it ignores the billions of facts that were never recorded.”
    Like biologists of evolution, you mean? Or astronomers?

    @proximity1: “Your comments appear to imply that only those we could call “cranks” inveigh against this “scientism”.”
    Did anyone Baggini call a crank? If yes, I missed it; I certainly don’t. I just disagree and think he said a few silly things. Typical human. I do it almost every day.
    If we accept Lorenz’ definition of scientism (“the misapplication of ….”) you’ll have a hard time to find any scientismist. It undoubtedly happens now and then, but not structurally.

    “other ways of knowing”
    I get itchy of other ways of knowing. We have the inductive method, we have the deductive method, both are incorporated in the scientific method. What other methods do we have? Some fairy whispering a revelation in my ear? My abdomen? Those who refer to spirituality should try to grasp the belief system of Papua’s first and then squeeze something universal from it.
    For the record: it’s very possible for philosophers and even theologians do use the deductive method, ie ratio. Nothing wrong with it. Mathematicians do it all the time.

  33. #33 proximity1
    September 20, 2012

    RE: MNb 12:26 pm

    @proximity1: “Your comments appear to imply that only those we could call “cranks” inveigh against this “scientism”.”

    Did anyone Baggini call a crank? If yes, I missed it; I certainly don’t. I just disagree and think he said a few silly things. Typical human. I do it almost every day.

    If we accept Lorenz’ definition of scientism (“the misapplication of ….”) you’ll have a hard time to find any scientismist. It undoubtedly happens now and then, but not structurally.

    First, notice that quotation marks can serve more than one purpose. In addition to indicating another’s spoken or written words verbatim, they may also indicate that the writer intends the word or words between quotation marks to be intended in an ironical or other than strictly literal sense—as, in this case, I intended the word “crank”—and not as a direct reference to anyone’s previous use here in the comments. So, indeed, no, no one did call Julian Baggini a “crank”, nor did I claim that anyone had done so.

    Second, the comments you cite, taken from my citation, are not the words of Konrad Lorenz, but, as I indicated clearly, those of Neil Postman, in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

    My point was to try and counter what appeared to me as the implied (and, if so, mistaken) idea that criticisms of someone’s practice of scientism have come only or mainly from non-scientists complaining about some particular scientist’s practice of his or her profession. I have found that others, some of them respected scientists in their own right, and others, no less respectable in other fields, have presented criticisms of what they have described as scientism and that in doing so, they have not excluded people who are also professional scientists from that charge.

    Rather than debate with you about what scientism really is, who is susceptible to indulging in it and how and why, I’m content to leave my reply there. The sources I named speak, and speak very well, for themselves to anyone who is interested enough to consult them.

  34. #34 J. Quinton
    September 20, 2012

    Pigliucci accuses Coyne of a fallacy of equivocation, but he’s the one who is actually equivocating.

    If I say that I play my guitar “religiously” this doesn’t mean that guitar playing now becomes a religion. Similarly, if I said that I learned how to play my guitar scientifically, this doesn’t mean that I now have earned a PhD in guitar playing.

    There’s probably a fancy name for this failure of reasoning, but I don’t know it. The idea that because object X shares a quality with object B, that this means that object X must also share every other quality with object B.

    It actually seems to follow the same reasoning as The Worst Argument In The World. So congratulations, Pigliucci! You’ve made the worst argument in the world in attacking “scientism”.

  35. #35 AL
    September 20, 2012

    Every rule and method of science is in place for two reasons: 1) to avoid bias in data collection, and 2) to avoid fallacy in the conclusions you draw from that data.

    Why do we collect data from randomized samples? Why do we have controls for confounding factors? Why do we blind studies? We do all of these things to satisfy 1) and 2) above.

    Given that the rules of science are designed specifically to minimize bias and fallacy, the “alternative” must be to allow or tolerate some bias and fallacy creep.

  36. #36 couchloc
    September 20, 2012

    I’m not sure why this topic keeps coming up, since I think Massimo has done a nice job sorting out the issues. Let me explain what I think is going on.

    The topic of “scientism” has no intrinsic connection to religion and is not a religiously-based notion, though it is often found in those contexts. This point is clear from the wikipedia quote by Malcom Dean (see the first post in this thread). So I think the issue is being misunderstood about where the charge of scientism is coming from. The dialectic seems to proceed like this:

    (1) Strict atheist, scientist types think we should criticize religious belief, and they do so by saying things like “religion is completely misguided and false, etc.” This is often connected with various claims about how (A) “science has increased our knowledge of the world with biology, physics, and chemistry”…..As it is said, “We have evidence for our scientific claims, but religion just makes stuff up!”

    (2) Religious believers then reply: “You are wrong because science is not the only type of knowledge. There’s also faith and religious insight into God’s love, etc.”

    (3) At this point, hard, atheist, scientists, start getting impatient, and wanting a quick victory, make the following retort (B): “No, all knowledge is empirical, scientific knowledge and anything else is useless.” The belief seems to be that (B) is needed to refute claims of religious knowledge.

    Here is where Massimo gets concerned. Massimo thinks (A) is fine but those who assert (B) are making a mistake. First, Massimo thinks (B) is false. This is why he is concerned to point out that anyone who asserts (B) rules out knowledge in mathematics, logic, and ethics, which he takes to be nonempirical disciplines. This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He calls this “scientism” because it’s privileging one type of knowledge (the “empirical”) over other types of knowledge (the “nonempirical, rational”). Notice this complaint is independent of the issue of religious belief. It is true that religious believers have adopted the “scientism” charge, but only because it serves their aims of making room for nonempirical types of knowledge. The charge is independent from religion per se.

    Second, there’s a related concern that arises. Many people who discuss this issue (I’m thinking of Massimo, Sober, etc.) think the falsity of (B) is important and not simply a “turf issue”. They believe the best arguments against religious belief do not depend on (B), but are philosophical (the problem of evil, the impotence of supernaturalism, limitations on design inferences, the incoherence of the ontological argument, etc.). So not only do they think those who assert (B) are wrong, but this approach makes the tactical mistake of thinking that the debate between “science and religion” should be settled on empirical grounds. Instead of this, the philosophers think people should let philosophy do its job. Philosophy includes some of atheism’s greatest defenders (Marx, Hume, Nietzsche, Russell—are they too soft on religion or something?). So those who keep insisting that (B) is where the debate is are not only wrong and insulting their colleagues in philosophy when they suggest it’s useless (Krauss), but harming atheism as well. The issue is important because it relates to a basic difference in approach.

  37. #37 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 20, 2012

    couchloc –

    What you just wrote is far more reasonable than most of what Pigliucci said, but permit me a few points in reply.

    First, I keep discussing this issue because other people keep bringing it up. Pigliucci does post after post accusing people of scientism, and recently numerous other bloggers have been discussing it as well. I would be perfectly happy to see this non-issue go away, which is kind of the point I’ve been making in all these posts.

    Next, Wikipedia can define things however it wants, but the fact remains that it is very common for religious people to deploy charges of scientism in precisely the way I described. To the extent that being accused of scientism does imply that you are privileging scientific knowledge over religious knowledge, I would argue that it is nothing to be ashamed of.

    Regarding your point (B), I don’t think it’s really true that hard, atheist, scientist types think it is a necessary assumption for refuting religion. Saying that religious ways of knowing are unreliable has no particular connection to claims about what other ways of knowing are reliable. Moreover, your clause, “and anything else is useless,” seems like a far harsher way of putting things than I hear people like Krauss arguing. But the first part of B, I think, has a lot to recommend it.

    Math, logic and ethics don’t seem like strong counterexamples to me. The first thing to note is that there is simply no way that someone like Lawrence Krauss could possible be accused of thinking logic and math are useless. This relates to another objection I had to Piglucci’s post, which is that he’s very casual about going from thinking that certain questions are unanswerable, to thinking that they are meaningless or unserious. Many people argue that there are no moral facts, but I don’t know anyone who thinks moral discourse is useless.

    Moreover, it’s not so clear what it means to refer to knowledge in mathematics and logic. Certainly math and logic are standard tools in the scientist’s toolkit, and they work together with experimentation and data collection and all the rest to produce knowledge of the natural world. But I don’t think that’s what you meant. To the extent that we speak of knowledge within pure mathematics, it’s knowledge of an unusual sort. It certainly is not knowledge of the natural world, which is what Krauss was talking about.

    Regarding your final paragraph, I’m certainly happy for the fight against religion to be a tag team effort between science and philosophy. Does Krauss disagree? It could hardly be otherwise, considering, as we discussed before, that it is often hard to draw a clear line between science and philosophy. The impotence of supernaturalism seems like an empirical point to me, and I don’t think you need a degree in philosophy to wield the problem of evil successfully.

    At any rate, some of these points I’m planning to address in more detail in my follow-up to this post, so I won’t say more here.

  38. #38 JimR
    September 20, 2012

    Science can only wrestle with physical structures which can be observed, poked and prodded in many ways to determine cause and effect. We have developed profound mental systems of organization which have been applied to science to structure and interpret the results and this organization leads to development of greater structuring which is often testable. This is the science we develop through empirical means.

    We have other systems of ideas which are not physically testable; religion, logic, etc. These are weighed against their internal consistency such as mathematical proofs. If the ABC proof is established, this organizes mathematics at a very high level. At the counting level, mathematics is physically testable. I don’t see philosophy as being testable in a physical sense, but it can certainly be tested for internal structural consistency. Religion is another major mental structure, totally devoid of physical testing and suffering structural inconsistencies. Religion is based solely on recorded testimony organized by subsequent scholars into a system of beliefs. History is based on recorded testimony and buttressed by archaeological digs. I have been biased by N. N. Taleb’s view of history that there is not one, but millions of antecedents which are a long series of causes and effects that result in whatever happened. Historians can relate what is known of the past, but should be wary of ascribing causes for the effects narrated; these are untestable because missing data far exceeds the recorded data.

  39. #39 couchloc
    September 20, 2012

    Jason, thanks. I think much of what you say is reasonable, and I am sympathetic with your point that it is really claims of religious knowledge that are the problem, and that how we sort out the other issues is less important. But I’m not happy saying they are not important at all. I won’t address everything you wrote, since that would be pretty long, so let me focus on what I hear Krauss saying. Consider these claims:

    (a) empirical knowledge is a good type of knowledge
    (b) empirical knowledge is an exceptional type of knowledge
    (c) empirical knowledge is the only type of knowledge
    (d) empirical knowledge is the only type of knowledge, and anything else is useless

    Nobody around here has a problem with (a) and (b), and, indeed philosophers themselves are often concerned to extol the virtues of science and scientific ways of looking at the world. There’s a reason why physicist D. Albert is comfortable working in a philosophy department. The problem begins to arise with the other claims. I think Krauss should be read as saying at least (c) and that there’s good evidence for (d), such as:

    “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads.” (The Atlantic interview)

    “Vague philosophical debates about cause and effect, and something and nothing, for example ….are very good examples of this. One can debate until one is blue in the face what the meaning of “non-existence” is, but while that may be an interesting philosophical question, it is really quite impotent….” (The Guardian)

    “As for your … sense of my imperialist ambitions, I don’t see it as imperialism at all. It’s merely distinguishing between questions that are answerable and those that aren’t. To first approximation, all the answerable ones end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge….” (ibid)

    You suggest Krauss is saying (c), but I think it is closer to (d). He says “anything answerable is empirical knowledge” (this is (c)) but he also adds philosophy “has no content” and “is impotent” (which gets us to (d)). So at least regarding philosophy his claims appear quite strong.

    If he merely stuck with (a) or (b) this would be fine. I don’t like (c). I think it should be replaced with (c*) “reason and evidence based inquiry is the only type of knowledge” (which is inclusive).

  40. #40 MNb
    September 20, 2012

    @Couchloc: “No, all knowledge is empirical, scientific knowledge and anything else is useless.”
    The second part sounds like a strawman to me. JR has pointed this out in a far more friendly way.
    Your reaction of 8:48 indicates that you still don’t consider the point that all scientists, including Krauss, use ratio, ie deduction, ie theory and hypothesis to gain knowledge. They need it to analyse the data they have gathered. It’s an essential part of knowledge.
    Your argument still sounds like a strawman to me.
    Btw, when I was trained as a teacher maths 25 years ago I once defended that math is useless indeed; the idea is that math only is useful as an application but not in itself.

    @JimR: “Historians can relate what is known of the past, but should be wary of ascribing causes for the effects narrated; these are untestable because missing data far exceeds the recorded data.”
    Same applies to the study of the fossil record and to astronomy. So what?

  41. #41 MNb
    September 20, 2012

    Sorry for not being entirely clear. The strawman is that Pigliucci and possibly Couchloc put that quote into the mouth of scientismists.

  42. #42 couchloc
    September 20, 2012

    MNb, can you explain to me how my second to last paragraph doesn’t address your concern? Krauss says philosophy (which is the example on the table) has “no content” and “is impotent,” which I’ve translated as “is useless.” Is that translation not fair?

  43. #43 Thanny
    September 21, 2012

    What we see here is a man who is somewhat obsessive about reminding everyone how well-trained he is in philosophy, but nevertheless incapable of understanding the concept of words having multiple meanings delineated by context.

    Truly astonishing.

  44. #44 MadScientist
    September 21, 2012

    Part of the problem is that rational decisions are being conflated with science. Science is a fairly broad means of testing ideas and investigating nature. A lot of rational behavior will have much in common with science but that does not mean that the rational behavior is science (although science itself is a rational endeavor). “Scientism” is nothing but a silly strawman; even scientists accused of ‘scientism’ don’t conform to the ridiculous caricature of scientism.

  45. #45 MNb
    September 21, 2012

    @Couchloc: do you really think a theoretical physicist like Lawrence Krauss does not recognize the importance of deduction? It’s no less than his …… job. So if he would think that “empirical knowledge is the only type of knowledge, and anything else is useless” that includes the way he makes his money – at least the way you seem to interpret it. Empirical knowledge is for instance what experimental physicists collect.

  46. #46 eric
    September 21, 2012

    Chouchloc, Pigliucci doesn’t just say ‘Krauss is a scientisimist,’ Pigliucci says ‘scientism is widespread among scientists.’

    He’s wrong for all but the most trivial definitions of scientiism. The idea that philosophy is crap or that logic, math, deduction, history, ethics etc. are useless pursuits that don’t (and conceptually, can’t) produce knowledge is not a widespread belief among scientists. Maybe, maybe Lawrence Krauss fits that bill. I doubt it, but I’m willing to concede you that one person for sake of argument. I am not, however, willing to concede that Pigliucci’s characterization of scientists as a group is correct.

    Ask a scientist the best way to measure the force of gravity, and yes, they’ll say “science.” Ask a scientist whether divine revelation is a good ‘way of knowing’ about the empirical world and most will answer no. But ask them whether science is the only subject or discipline that produces anythink of value, and most will answer no.

  47. #47 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    First, on the equivocation. It is fair that in a lot of cases the two definitions are, in fact, being improperly substituted. Coyne is a good example. He starts with a conflict between science and religion, but it’s a conflict with a formal science, in his case usually biology. Then he argues as part of that that science is the only way to knowing, usually to support his incompatibilist view. People point out that that’s false, and he then says that he has a “broad” definition of the term “science”. But the problem is that all of the fields that would then fall under “science” might NOT have the same sort of issue. This becomes more obvious when he discusses theology, as a number of theological arguments might not fit into science, but are at least things that philosophy can consider (particularly when it involves discussing whether you need empirical data for a claim or not). So he broadens the definition to include all areas that produce knowledge, but then in arguing against religion limits what can be considered to what the formal sciences will allow. That’s equivocation. I suspect it’s unintentional, but equivocation all the same.

    MNb,

    I get itchy of other ways of knowing. We have the inductive method, we have the deductive method, both are incorporated in the scientific method. What other methods do we have?

    Well, do you see no interesting difference between the specific scientific methods and the methods that everyone else uses? For example, let’s take the “remove bias” line from AL:

    Every rule and method of science is in place for two reasons: 1) to avoid bias in data collection, and 2) to avoid fallacy in the conclusions you draw from that data.

    Why do we collect data from randomized samples? Why do we have controls for confounding factors? Why do we blind studies? We do all of these things to satisfy 1) and 2) above.

    Given that the rules of science are designed specifically to minimize bias and fallacy, the “alternative” must be to allow or tolerate some bias and fallacy creep.

    Yes, and I’d say that that’s what everyday (or “common sense”) reasoning does: it tolerates more biases and more fallacies that might make it make mistakes because it only has an interest in things working out sufficiently and because it takes a long time to actually remove all of those biases and potential fallacies only to discover that … you were right all along. When planning out my bus route, I don’t need to know the absolute best one, tested fully and completely with all possible issues considered. I need one that will work out reasonably well, and taking the time and effort to do all the stuff science does to eliminate personal bias just isn’t worth it. But it is reliable, which means that it does produce knowledge; the scientific methjod is MORE reliable, but not more reliable enough to make it worth using for everyday decisions. So we don’t.

    Philosophy is the same way. It doesn’t, for example, make a presumption that the propositions should be tested empirically. You have to ARGUE for that in philosophy. Science simply presumes that every proposition they really care about really ought to be tested empirically. Philosophy wouldn’t work that way because it deals a lot with concepts, which you can’t usually test that way. So, again, a different method, but both are reliable and so both produce knowledge.

    That, then, is the debate to me: are there interesting differences between the methods that referring to them all by the same term simply risks ignoring all of these for no real gain? I think there are, which is why I oppose what I call “Broad Scientism”.

  48. #48 eric
    September 21, 2012

    VS:

    When planning out my bus route, I don’t need to know the absolute best one, tested fully and completely with all possible issues considered. I need one that will work out reasonably well, and taking the time and effort to do all the stuff science does to eliminate personal bias just isn’t worth it. But it is reliable, which means that it does produce knowledge; the scientific methjod is MORE reliable, but not more reliable enough to make it worth using for everyday decisions. So we don’t.

    Philosophy is the same way.

    That is not a very flattering comparison for philosophy. Are you sure you really want to say that it just isn’t worth the time and effort to philosophy to rigorously test their claims? That eliminating the biases and fallacies in philosophical claims is, like bus-route-planning, not worth the effort?

    Philosophy resembles physics a lot more than it does bus-route-planning in terms of practical constraints on time and effort. So if the field is as accepting of errors, fallacies, and biases as bus-estimating (is), one has to wonder: why?

  49. #49 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    eric,

    I’m not claiming that philosophy doesn’t care about testing, My point there was, as I said, that there are interesting differences in the methods that lumping them all together is misleading. In philosophy’s case, I pointed out that the differene was about whether one needs empirical testing. Science presumes it, and philosophy makes you argue for it. Philosophy, in fact, cares far MORE about eliminating fallacies and biases than science does. It just doesn’t make the presumption that a link to the empirical is required.

    Again, my argument was that everyday reasoning and philosophy are different methods from science, and are different in meaningful ways. You seem to have over-interpreted the comparison.

  50. #50 eric
    September 21, 2012

    In philosophy’s case, I pointed out that the differene was about whether one needs empirical testing. Science presumes it, and philosophy makes you argue for it.

    Again, I don’t think this is very flattering. At least when some sub-field of philosophy concerns claims about about the world (not all of them do), saying that the default is no empirical testing and one must argue for it is a bit blinkered. It seems like a consciously choosing to ignore data you have a prima facie reason to believe would be relevant.

  51. #51 Verbose Stoic
    September 21, 2012

    eric,

    Again, I don’t think this is very flattering. At least when some sub-field of philosophy concerns claims about about the world (not all of them do), saying that the default is no empirical testing and one must argue for it is a bit blinkered. It seems like a consciously choosing to ignore data you have a prima facie reason to believe would be relevant.

    Ah, I think I see your objection now.

    No, it isn’t like that. Again, as I said, philosophy does not PRESUME that it needs empirical testing, but let me add that it doesn’t premise it DOESN’T either. For any proposition, you have to ARGUE over whether that data is relevant or not, while in science it’s just assumed that empirical data is relevant (maybe over whether some SPECIFIC data is relevant, not not over whether empirical data should be used at all).

    So perhaps the best way to put it is this way: In philosophy, everything is up for grabs. If someone argues that the proposition is not amenable to empirical testing, you have to look at the argument very seriously … exactly as seriously as you look at an argument that says it is amenable to empirical testing and that it should be.

  52. #52 couchloc
    September 21, 2012

    eric, I replied to the issue you raise on the other post Jason put up. I don’t think Massimo is committed to the claim that scientism is widespread, as you say (or then our disagreement concerns what ‘widespread’ means). It is certainly not how I have phrased the issue. By no means are all scientists in the group we’re discussing. I’m focusing on a specific, largely influential, group of scientists who appear to have gone out of their way to make broad statements about how bad philosophy is.

  53. #53 JimV
    September 21, 2012

    I hope this is my last time to object to the premise that things like math and logic are not empirically based, but probably not, because people keep bringing up that premise on the internet without justifying it.

    In my contrary opinion, we are born with sensing tools, a system to process their inputs, and some built-in chemically-based algorithms. Everything we then learn is learned empirically by examining the world around us (sometimes by reading a book, once books were invented and became part of our world).

    Here’s how we come to accept a logical proposition (such as, if A implies B and B implies C, then A implies C): we try to think of a counterexample, based on our own experience. If we can’t, we provisionally accept the proposition, i.e., it seems empirically sound.

    I also object to the proposition that science always demands the best, optimum solution, not just one that works. See the term “rocket scientist”. My broad definition of science would be the practice of adding something to the total of working knowledge (not just human knowledge – aliens could be doing science also). That something rarely, perhaps never, is the best and final result obtainable (see Newton).

    The philosophismists seem to me to be the ones who demand perfect results – although they haven’t achieved many.

  54. #54 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @couchloc, VS:

    Once again, I invite either of you to provide even a single example of reliable knowledge that is not derived empirically. A few qualifications:
    a) Mathematical truths are true by virtue of the axioms which are used to prove the theories. Thus they are only true in some absolute senses if the axioms are true descriptions of the universe. As far as I can tell, we can only determine whether axioms are true of the universe by empirically investigating whether they are true. If there is another way to establish mathematical axioms as true I’m all ears, but I suspect you’re going to have a lot of trouble with the Munchausen trilemma.
    b) No “analytic truths” will be accepted that are true merely by definition. “An unmarried man is a bachelor” is not an information-conveying proposition.

    (3) At this point, hard, atheist, scientists, start getting impatient, and wanting a quick victory, make the following retort (B): “No, all knowledge is empirical, scientific knowledge and anything else is useless.” The belief seems to be that (B) is needed to refute claims of religious knowledge.

    Straw man. Replace “useless” with “unreliable” and your statement might be true. But then to argue with it you would have to demonstrate the existence of reliable knowledge that is not derived empirically as I’ve requested above.

    One example is all that is required. So far, the silence has been deafening.

  55. #55 Dan M.
    September 21, 2012

    It really amuses me how indignant Pigliucci gets when science is defined broadly and implies that is a fool’s view of science, yet he seems to adore Carl Sagan. Sagan’s own definition of science was even more broad than Dr. Coyne or Krauss’ definition.

    Sagan wrote in The Demon Haunted World: “Some may consider this an over broad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science.”

  56. #56 Dan L.
    September 21, 2012

    @Kevin (the one who said the following):

    The absurdity of the scientistic approach may be illustrated by considering that a mother may instinctively know that her baby’s tears indicate that he is sad, rather than waiting until a peer-reviewed study has established the statistical significance of lachrymal effusions among the local population of newborns.

    First of all, while peer-reviewed studies are certainly better than any alternative for establishing new knowledge, it’s quite clear that scientists — even those frequently accused of “scientism” — don’t demand anything like this kind of rigor to regard knowledge as “scientific.” For example, if a physicist is constructing an experimental apparatus and using aluminum as a material, it is not regarded as unscientific if the physicist were to simply look up the tensile and compressive strength of that substance rather than performing experiments to determine it. Ultimately, this is just another straw man of the “no-such-think-as-scientism” position.

    Second of all, it seems to me that you must have never once in your life watched a mother interacting with a crying baby. It’s the perfect model of scientific investigation. Let me guide you through a typical scenario:
    *Baby cries.
    Mother: Do you need a change?
    *Sniff, sniff.
    Mother…Nooo, are you hungry?
    *Tries to feed, baby is not hungry.
    Mother: Do you need a nap?
    *Puts baby in quiet, dark, environment. Baby falls asleep.

    Babies usually cry because of some specific need or stimulus, not because they’re “sad”. Mothers know this. But they know this by investigating the matter empirically, not by special mother magic.

  57. #57 CherryBombSim
    September 22, 2012

    If you get on the train and test whether it gets you to 86th and Lexington, you are doing science. If you stay on the platform and continue to ponder the hypothesis deeply, you are doing philosophy.

  58. #58 eric
    September 24, 2012

    VS:

    So perhaps the best way to put it is this way: In philosophy, everything is up for grabs. If someone argues that the proposition is not amenable to empirical testing, you have to look at the argument very seriously … exactly as seriously as you look at an argument that says it is amenable to empirical testing and that it should be.

    That’s STILL not flattering.

    Look, if I propose that a crocodile lives in my garage, what are you going to do? Go look in my garage – or insist we all have a very serious philosophical argument about whether looking in my garage is a valid methodology for testing my claim?

    Are you really telling me that philosophy as a discipline takes the position that it is better to have this deep discussion before looking in the garage? Are you telling me that philosophers will not propose anyone look in the garage until someone comes up with a strong philosophical argument for doing so?

  59. #59 Verbose Stoic
    September 24, 2012

    eric,

    Look, if I propose that a crocodile lives in my garage, what are you going to do? Go look in my garage – or insist we all have a very serious philosophical argument about whether looking in my garage is a valid methodology for testing my claim?

    That’s not a philosophical question (and it isn’t even a formal sciences question either). Of COURSE trying to treat it like a philosophical question is going to look ridiculous. By the same token, you wouldn’t propose an experiment, work out a theory, and get it peer-reviewed either. You’d just go look. That’s because it follows the methods of everyday reasoning, not philosophy or science.

    So a better example is: what does it mean to know? What are the standards we have to have to know? And so if someone proposes naturalized epistemology — ie looking at it empirically — then you can bet that philosophers will indeed ask if that method can indeed actually answer that question, or if it is beyond the scope of that. You cannot simply say without argument that the answer MUST be found empirically, or through armchair philosophy. Now, if you apply one of those methods and make it work, then you might not need to justify your choice of method as much, but ultimately in philosophy the right method is always open for debate.

  60. #60 eric
    September 25, 2012

    VS:

    [eric] Look, if I propose that a crocodile lives in my garage, what are you going to do? Go look in my garage – or insist we all have a very serious philosophical argument about whether looking in my garage is a valid methodology for testing my claim?

    [VS] That’s not a philosophical question (and it isn’t even a formal sciences question either). Of COURSE trying to treat it like a philosophical question is going to look ridiculous.

    The example was chosen specifically to be similar to Sagan’s ‘dragon in the garage.’ Because it seems to me that philosophy of religion types do want to have this deep discussion over whether empiricism is the right methodology to test a claim about the existence of real entities rather than just look.
    And, at the risk of imputing bad motives to a whole group, I’d say that the reason they want to have this deep discussion is because the obvious methodology – “go look” – doesn’t yield the conclusion they support. Its a form of post-hoc rationalization. The obvious and standard methodolgy that we would apply to every other claim of “x exists” doesn’t yield the answer we want, so we ought to question the methodology. Um, no. At that point, the rational thing to do is question your conclusion.

  61. #61 Verbose Stoic
    September 25, 2012

    eric,

    In philosophy, you look at the purported properties of the entity you want to prove the existence of and see if an empirical approach is warranted. Crocodiles are things that you really should be able to see, and so you would just go look. The question, thus, would be settled quickly. Thus, philosophically, you are comparing things that aren’t comparable from a philosophical view and making a point — I presumed, anyway — about philosophy. Note that I didn’t choose any kind of “god” example just to avoid getting into arguing over theology/religion when, presumably, we were talking about philosophy.

    So, if you want to ask if we can just “go look” to find God, you have to think about what it means to “go look” and if that really works or not. That means doing philosophy and theology, which means that you don’t presume that “go look” — ie go and try to prove if the thing exists or not — means “use the senses/empiricism”. Because while the formal sciences presume that, philosophy does not.

  62. #62 Michael Fugate
    September 25, 2012

    Is god a non-falsifiable hypothesis? Has it so many caveats that there is no possible means of providing a decision?

  63. #63 eric
    September 26, 2012

    VS:

    So, if you want to ask if we can just “go look” to find God, you have to think about what it means to “go look” and if that really works or not.

    But we’ve done that. For thousands of years. What you seme to be saying is that philosohy ignores the historical success of empiricism at resolving questions about the world and starts every investigation of an “x exists” claim wihoutt any a priori assumptions about investigative methodloogies. Why do that? Saying that you start from first principles and reinvent the wheel for every new investigation is not something to be proud of. Its myopic and academic (in the negative sense) in the extreme.

    That means doing philosophy and theology, which means that you don’t presume that “go look.”

    I think you are trying to make a bug look like a feature. What’s really, historically, happened here is that the claim was recognized as prima facie empirical. It was investigated. Theologians didn’t like the result. So they went back and examined how they could modify their concept of God to maintain it in the face of empricial failure to find it. Calling into question the relevance of empiricism is the outcome of this protective white-washing. Its a defense strategy.

  64. #64 eric
    September 26, 2012

    ack, multiple html fails. The first and third paragraphs are VS’, the second and fourth are my responses.

  65. #65 Verbose Stoic
    September 26, 2012

    eric,

    But we’ve done that. For thousands of years.

    Considering the nature of the most classical examples of philosophical questions, I’m not sure why you think that would matter to philosophy. Philosophy will churn on the question until it is convinced that it has been settled, one way or another. That philosophy hasn’t completely ditched it yet suggests that there are, at least, conceptual flaws in the arguments that are supposedly settling it, on both sides. In short, philosophy is not convinced that the question has been settled. Science might be, and everyday reasoning might be, and faith might be, but their opinions really don’t matter that much to what philosophy thinks about the question. Surely you don’t have a problem with philosophy deciding when it’s convinced for itself?

    What you seme to be saying is that philosohy ignores the historical success of empiricism at resolving questions about the world and starts every investigation of an “x exists” claim wihoutt any a priori assumptions about investigative methodloogies. Why do that?

    It doesn’t. The main ideal of philosophy is that we start from the thing we are looking at and decide from THERE what the right approach is. Most of the time, that’s obviously empirical. But some cases seem more problematic, and philosophy doesn’t let “I haven’t found it empirically!” simply settle the question. It asks if that empirical examination SHOULD settle the question.

    Now, in practice, for a lot of things it’s simply presumed that for things in the world the answer will be found empirically, and then when they went and looked they didn’t find it. A lot of people then decided that that meant that it didn’t exist, and that was that. But philosophy usually looks deeper, and asks “Well, is that the way we WOULD find it?”. So what may look to you like simply trying to redefine yourself out of trouble is, in fact, valid philosophically — and scientifically as well, because it is rarely the case in science that if someone tests their theory and finds it wrong that they immediately dismiss it, but they always try to find ways to patch it up, either by seeing if their test could be designed incorrectly to find the result they wanted or by tweaking the theory until it matches the data. The biggest issue, then, you seem to be having is that in philosophy — and theology — it seems a bit more open-ended in deciding when the theory absolutely has to be abandoned. But I don’t really see that as a big issue.

    Saying that you start from first principles and reinvent the wheel for every new investigation is not something to be proud of. Its myopic and academic (in the negative sense) in the extreme.

    Which I didn’t say. I say we don’t simply presume that it MUST be empirical, and that we start from a careful examination of the question before deciding what methods will solve it. Why would it be bad to think about how the question can be answered before trying to answer it?

    I think you are trying to make a bug look like a feature. What’s really, historically, happened here is that the claim was recognized as prima facie empirical. It was investigated. Theologians didn’t like the result. So they went back and examined how they could modify their concept of God to maintain it in the face of empricial failure to find it. Calling into question the relevance of empiricism is the outcome of this protective white-washing. Its a defense strategy.

    But the relevant question to philosophy — what we’re talking about, remember? — is “Did they find a philosophically valid defense?”. If they did, then their defense is valid, just as if you find a scientifically valid defense of a theory that’s seemingly invalidated by the evidence then that’s valid for science as well. And since philosophy has been calling into question the relevance of empiricism for philosophical questions for thousands of years on questions unrelated to theology, that they use that defense is not likely to matter one bit to philosophy.

    Nothing says you have to like or want to do philosophy, but if you are going to challenge it and claim that there are “bugs” in its methods you really have to understand what it’s after and how it works … just as someone would for science. Or everyday reasoning. Or anything else.

  66. #66 eric
    September 26, 2012

    VS:

    [eric] But we’ve done that. For thousands of years.

    [VS] Considering the nature of the most classical examples of philosophical questions, I’m not sure why you think that would matter to philosophy. Philosophy will churn on the question until it is convinced that it has been settled, one way or another. That philosophy hasn’t completely ditched it yet suggests that there are, at least, conceptual flaws in the arguments that are supposedly settling it, on both sides. In short, philosophy is not convinced that the question has been settled.

    You use computers. You take vaccines. You drive cars. The question is settled in your minds for pretty much any and every question except the academic ones that don’t have a real-life impact on your survival. For those, you’ve carved out exceptions when empiricism conflicts with your pre-existing beliefs about God and such.

    So whatever ‘conceptual flaws’ you think empiricism has, you seem perfectly willing to put them aside when you perceive there may be a practical downside to it. You don’t take your own reservations about empiricism seriously enough to act on them when they really matter, so why should I take them seriously ever?

    You want me to consider the possibility that empiricism as a methodology may be inadequate for making decisions about the existence of God? Okay, I’ll do that when you consider the possibility that empiricism as a methodology may be inadequate for making decisions about the existence of combustion reactions, and choose not to use cars, planes, trains, and so on.

  67. #67 Verbose Stoic
    September 28, 2012

    eric,

    You use computers. You take vaccines. You drive cars. The question is settled in your minds for pretty much any and every question except the academic ones that don’t have a real-life impact on your survival. For those, you’ve carved out exceptions when empiricism conflicts with your pre-existing beliefs about God and such.

    It’s somewhat odd how this started out with us discussing — and you criticizing — philosophy and how it doesn’t generally assume that the empirical is the only or even a way to get answers to the questions it wants answered and has moved entirely through moves of yours to you basically accusing me personally– again — of special pleading in the case of my personal belief in God. Unless you mean to accuse philosophy of special pleading, but that’s a fairly ridiculous claim, so I’ll leave it at you going after me personally.

    So, let me use this example to drag the discussion not only back to the original starting point, but also back to one of the main issues in this thread: ways of knowing.

    So, when I use computers and vaccines and cars and that, I’m not doing philosophy, just as I don’t do philosophy to determine if there is a crocodile in my garage. I use everyday reasoning. And everyday reasoning is, of course, empirical. Or, more precisely, it’s experiential, meaning based on my own experiences, because for my everyday decisions that’s all I have access to. Since it is my experiences that suggest that my sense data is giving me access to an external world, I’m going to rely on the senses for data about it … which, then, makes it empirical.

    For vaccines, it’s probably safe to say that my use of them is not justified by experience, but instead by science. But, again, since science is empirical then of course I’m going to use empirical data as well.

    None of these, though, are philosophical questions. So when i’m doing philosophy, I don’t assume or rely strictly on empirical data, for the simple reason that for a lot of philosophical problems it’s quite reasonable to think that empirical data won’t solve them. Anything normative, for example, runs into the is/ought problem. I also argue that conceptual problems — which are a large part of philosophy — can’t be solved empirically because we can’t say, for example, that just because moons are spherical in this universe that part of what it means to be a moon is that it be spherical. However, philosophy also has as a component the idea that every claim needs to be justified, and thus I don’t get to look at any problem and just declare that it can be solved empirically or can’t be solved empirically. I have to justify that as well. That combination means that for any philosophical question I’d have to justify any claim that the question can be answered empirically.

    These are all, to my mind, different ways of knowing. They all produce knowledge. They’re all very, very good at what they do, and all have uses in specific situations and for certain questions.

    Everyday reasoning is, as stated, empirical but not skeptical (where by skeptical I mean “Being skeptical means not believing unless you have really good reason; not being skeptical means believing unless you have really good reason not to”). It rejects skepticism because it can’t wait for all the tests to be in to act; we have to act quickly and don’t have the time to test everything out fully. But the cost of this is a higher chance of being wrong. But it is self-correcting and is still reliable, producing true beliefs enough to be useful.

    Science is, of course, empirical and skeptical. It trades off taking longer to come to conclusions with being right more of the time.

    Philosophy, as stated, is not empirical (and may or may not be skeptical). It trades off having to justify more of its steps and having fewer axioms with having the power to address more questions, and certain questions that can’t be done empirically.

    So, we have then two questions:

    1) Is the God question a philosophical one? Any claim that the concept is too vague to be evaluated sounds like conceptual analysis is required to me, and that’s one of the things that philosophy loves to do.

    2) Are there valid philosophical reasons to think that perhaps God can’t be found empirically? Well, God has some purportedly infinite properties (omniscience, omnipotence) and you can’t find that empirically. Also, status as a necessary thing can’t be justified empirically either (you can’t look at something and see that it has to exist). Finally, on some of the tests you are dealing with an intentional being with the knowledge and power to short-circuit them if it wants to. Any argument that God wouldn’t want to is at least philosophical and probably theological, and so beyond the initial grasp of an empirical approach.

    The big key here is that the questions you try to compare are different questions, and one of the keys to philosophy is that you have to examine — or at least be prepared to examine — each question individually on its own merits to determine how to approach it. So the comparison doesn’t hold at all, even if I considered them philosophical questions. Which I don’t.

    (BTW, I know this may sound like my simply plugging my blog, but I have a page on the Philosophical Method on my blog, and a post comparing it to the Scientific Method linked to it. If you’re really interested in it, maybe you could start there and we can move this debate off of Jason’s blog, since he may not be at all interested in this discussion).

  68. #68 Michael Fugate
    September 28, 2012

    So the entire purpose of philosophy of religion is to come up with a god-concept that is not empirically falsifiable? to wall it off from both confirmation and refutation? to make it so vague and meaningless that no one can challenge it?
    How times change from when the God would change a staff into a serpent? or make the sun stand still in the sky? Do we no longer have the faith of our ancestors? or has the God changed?

  69. #69 Verbose Stoic
    September 28, 2012

    Michael Fugate,

    No, the purpose of philosophy of religion — or, at least ONE purpose of it — is to figure out what a specific god-concept is and THEN to decide if it can be proven empirically or not.

    Taking the examples you give, everyday reasoning would accept that as proof that God existed, science would likely be skeptical, and philosophy would wonder if that really established the God they are supposedly talking about.

  70. #70 Michael Fugate
    September 28, 2012

    Sure….. if they happened. But did they? If they did, why don’t they happen now? Has god changed or has humanity changed? Has any recent philosopher of religion developed a god-concept that is empirically testable? And how did the test go? What does a philosopher do with a negative result? Does he or she say god is not like that and move on to the next or is there a point where one concludes god doesn’t exist? My understanding reading theology is that god is conveniently present and active in the world until someone asks for evidence, then god is conveniently not.

  71. #71 couchloc
    September 28, 2012

    Michael, just to be clear here, the philosophy of religion is not the same subject as theology. Philosophers of religion look at philosophical issues in the context of religion, and they can be theists or atheists, as I presume Hume and Mackie and Russell were. Theologians on the other hand are a different breed.

  72. #72 Michael Fugate
    September 29, 2012

    couchloc just to be clear here – you’re a smug pedantic asshat. Yes I know the difference. To bad you have nothing else to contribute.

  73. #73 eric
    October 1, 2012

    VS:

    It’s somewhat odd how this started out with us discussing — and you criticizing — philosophy and how it doesn’t generally assume that the empirical is the only or even a way to get answers to the questions it wants answered and has moved entirely through moves of yours to you basically accusing me personally– again — of special pleading in the case of my personal belief in God.

    To make it clear to lurkers etc., I really have no beef with philosophy as a discipline. I don’t like your characterization of it, and I think that characterization is influenced by a desire to protect/exempt some ‘entity-is-real’ claims from empiricism.
    To the extent that any philosopher – or really any person, from any discipline – would claim that they don’t start out with the presumption that empirical evidence is relevant to questions about the world, I think they are acting foolishly. I’ll exapand on this after the next quote.

    None of these, though, are philosophical questions. So when i’m doing philosophy, I don’t assume or rely strictly on empirical data, for the simple reason that for a lot of philosophical problems it’s quite reasonable to think that empirical data won’t solve them.

    I’m not arguing strict (as in only) reliance on evidence, I’m not arguing empirical evidence on its own will always solve problems, and I agree there are some philosophical areas where empiricism is not warranted (or at least, its revelance should not be presumed).

    I am arguing that what you said at 11:47am, 9/21 – “Science presumes it [empirical testing], and philosophy makes you argue for it” – is a very silly starting point for philosophical claims about the emprical world and the entities, forces, what have you, that reside in it or impact it.

    Forcing someone to argue for the relevance of empirical data to such claims is, at best, reinventing the wheel. There is no longer any good reason to make someone “argue for empirical testing” of a claim of a bigfoot, or a claim that the sun orbits the earth, or any claim of the same type. That emprical data is relevant should be the presumption because of the nature of the claim and the massive success of the natural sciences to address exactly those sorts of claims. That some theisitc god – gods who are claimed to have a human-observed influence on the world – exist is that sort of claim.

    1) Is the God question a philosophical one? Any claim that the concept is too vague to be evaluated sounds like conceptual analysis is required to me, and that’s one of the things that philosophy loves to do.

    If you are using “philosophy” as a discipline label, then I disagree with you. The issue is whether the claim says something about the world. If it does, then it doesn’t matter what discipline the claim resides in, emprical data should be considered relevant. In a sense, empirical/nonempirical is an orthogonal label to the philosophy/nonphilosophy. A claim can be empirical and philosophical, empirical and nonphilosophical, nonempirical and philosophical, or nonemperical and nonphilosophical. I do not think you are acknowledging that (i) that first category exists ,or (ii) that many claimed concepts of God fall in it.

    OTOH, if you are using “philosophy” to denote study of only conceptual, normative, etc. claims – i.e., claims not about the world or the things that reside in it – then I guess I will agree that for this type of philosophy, one should not start with the presumption that empiricism is revelant. But in doing that, you have to accept that any philosophical (in this sense of the word ‘philosophy’) claim about God is not talking about a god that intervenes or influences the physical world. Such a philosophy can handle classical deism, but not theism.

  74. #74 Verbose Stoic
    October 1, 2012

    eric,

    To make it clear to lurkers etc., I really have no beef with philosophy as a discipline. I don’t like your characterization of it, and I think that characterization is influenced by a desire to protect/exempt some ‘entity-is-real’ claims from empiricism.

    Interestingly, the characterization is driven by the normative questions — particularly morality — and by figuring out that conceptual analysis cannot be limited to what we see in this world, since just because, say, moons are spherical in this world doesn’t mean that they have to be so. It’s also driven by having read the analysis of people like Kant on those matters. To reduce it to “the God question” when that hasn’t been an important one to me philosophically is a bit insulting, although likely inadvertent.

    I am arguing that what you said at 11:47am, 9/21 – “Science presumes it [empirical testing], and philosophy makes you argue for it” – is a very silly starting point for philosophical claims about the emprical world and the entities, forces, what have you, that reside in it or impact it.

    Well, see, one issue here is that you talk about “the empirical world”, and of course if we accept that claims about the world and claims about the empirical world are identical then you can make your claim. But philosophy doesn’t assume that. It also doesn’t assume it’s false. It assumes nothing about that. And that’s why you have to argue for a claim that empiricism is the right way to solve a question, no matter what it is. For the simple examples you are relying on, the question was answered long ago and few are trying to or have any reason to question that answer. But for other questions that isn’t the case. Even the normative being non-empirical has been challenged and is open to it.

    The key thing is that philosophy does not presume how the question must be answered. It ASKS, as part of its investigations, how the question must be answered. The key in that quote is that science is DIFFERENT. It PRESUMES that the questions will have an empirical answer. Philosophy CAN’T do that because very good philosophers have argued that you can’t do that, and others have argued that you can. More on that in a bit.

    The issue is whether the claim says something about the world. If it does, then it doesn’t matter what discipline the claim resides in, emprical data should be considered relevant.

    And if you listen to Kant, he argues that that claim is false, and that for some questions empirical data won’t be relevant because you can’t get empirical data without knowing certain things true first. And some other philosophers (I think Wittgenstein argued that, but I always get him and Quine mixed up on that) have really good arguments that the opposite is true. So philosophy doesn’t and can’t simply make that presumption, since it’s still arguing about it with itself. That’s the main reason that you have to justify a claim that this answer will be empirical or non-empirical by looking at the question and figuring it out in philosophy.

    The big mistake you make is in ignoring that different ways of knowing work in different ways and make different presumptions. Science has been great at finding out things about the world because a great deal — and perhaps all — of those questions have empirical answers. Philosophy is interested in those, and does note what science is doing … but its method still won’t allow it to just say “So all questions about the world are empirical”. Which means that if people argue that the existence of a specific thing is not something that can be proven empirically, science ignores it but philosophy has to take it seriously.

    I do not think you are acknowledging that (i) that first category exists ,or (ii) that many claimed concepts of God fall in it.

    I acknowledge both. For i), that’s why I say that in philosophy you have to justify whether or not a question can be settled empirically. For ii), my only disagreement is about whether all the concepts you claim fall in it really do.

    The big disagreement here between us is over whether everything about the world should be justified empirically. I’m skeptical. You aren’t. How, then, can we settle that question with evidence and argument? Note that you CAN’T settle it empirically, so how do you plan to settle it?

  75. #75 Peter Beattie
    October 1, 2012

    Maybe I should add one thing about the Wikipedia definition of “scientism”, quoted above:

    [“scientism”] has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,[7] philosophers of science such as Karl Popper,[8] and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam[9] to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.

    That is wrong on two distinct, and interesting, counts. First, what Hayek called “scientism” was basically just overconfidence, or in other words: bad science. Popper, on the other hand, meant by “scientism” the belief in the certainty of scientific knowledge, closely related to positivism. Neither had reductionism in mind. Second, our knowledge is not of that which is measurable. That which is measurable gives us facts, or evidence. Knowledge comes from a theoretical model of reality which we test by marshalling appropriate evidence. For example, we don’t measure the relatedness of different species but only certain facts that we use to argue for a conclusion. That may very well give us reliable knowledge. But it is neither certain nor measurable.

  76. #76 eric
    October 2, 2012

    VS:

    Well, see, one issue here is that you talk about “the empirical world”, and of course if we accept that claims about the world and claims about the empirical world are identical then you can make your claim. But philosophy doesn’t assume that.

    Please stop quibbling over language. If someone makes a claim that an entity which leaves evidence exists, then it is silly to require someone to put forth an argument from first principles about the relevance of that evidence. Can I get you to agree to that?

    If you want to say that ‘the world’ can refer to unevidenced phenomena, be my guest. I’m not talking about that sort of thing. I thought it was pretty clear that I’m not talking about that sort of thing, but evidently not.

    For the simple examples you are relying on, the question was answered long ago and few are trying to or have any reason to question that answer.

    This is exactly my point. If I claimed to have turned water into wine 5 minutes ago, you would agree that empirical evidence is relevant and that the relevance question was answered long ago, yes? It would be silly for anyone to be asked to argue for the relevance of empirical data to such a claim; we can presume its relevance based on past experience.

    So now, if Alice claims that yesterday she turned water into wine, same conclusion. If Bob claims that last week he turned water into wine, same conclusion. If Charlie claims that last century he turned water into wine, same conclusion. So if theists claim that 2,000 years ago Jesus turned water into wine, we should reach the same conclusion. Yes?

    The big disagreement here between us is over whether everything about the world should be justified empirically.

    No, thats not what I’m arguing at all. I’m arguing that theistic concepts of an intervening God should be justified empirically. Because it seems to me that a believer can’t rationally claim significant effect/impact on the physical world on the one hand while simultaneously claiming ‘no empirical evidence/empirical evidence not relevant’ on the other.

  77. #77 Verbose Stoic
    October 2, 2012

    eric,

    Please stop quibbling over language. If someone makes a claim that an entity which leaves evidence exists, then it is silly to require someone to put forth an argument from first principles about the relevance of that evidence. Can I get you to agree to that?

    Yes, but the question is if that sort of evidence you claim should be expected or not. And it isn’t quibbling here because you will recall that the original debate was over whether it was wrong or bad or unflattering that philosophy did not presume that the evidence for a claim was empirical, and that you had to argue for it. Building in “empirical world” gives YOU a way to “win” that debate by stipulation and not by argument, and if you change it to evidence but don’t limit the term “evidence” to “empirical evidence” then it hardly seems to relate to the original question at all. Again, you are shifting the debate to be a debate about God but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

    No, thats not what I’m arguing at all. I’m arguing that theistic concepts of an intervening God should be justified empirically. Because it seems to me that a believer can’t rationally claim significant effect/impact on the physical world on the one hand while simultaneously claiming ‘no empirical evidence/empirical evidence not relevant’ on the other.

    And I reply that that’s a philosophical/theological question, that we have to settle by doing those fields. Recall when I said that in philosophy you have to argue about what sort of answer will indeed answer the question? Here, that’s what you’re trying to do: argue that the question once God intervenes in the world must be empirical. I’m not so sure about that, but this is again a completely different question from what we were talking about. Do you want to concede my point about philosophy and drop the idea that it’s unflattering to philosophy, and focus on this instead? Otherwise, I have little interest in trying to answer this sort of question again and again when the real discussion that I entered into here was about a completely different question.

  78. #78 eric
    October 3, 2012

    you will recall that the original debate was over whether it was wrong or bad or unflattering that philosophy did not presume that the evidence for a claim was empirical, and that you had to argue for it.

    Yes, and my response was that this is silly for those parts of philosophy that deal with claims about the physical world. I’ve already said umpteen times that I am not claiming all philosophical enquiry should presume empirical data is relevant. But I’ll say it umpteen times + 1: I’m limiting my response to you to those parts of philosophy that deal with entities, forces, etc. that are claimed to influence the empirical world. Those parts should presume empirical data is relevant and it is silly for those parts to require a philosopher to ‘argue for’ empirical data before considering it.

    Moreover, those parts include any philosophical argumens for the existence of beings who impregnate virgins, bodily ressurrect humans, walk on water, transmute water into wine, create bread and fish ex nihilo, heal leprosy with a touch, etc. Because those are all empirical claims. Any philosopher who makes a philosophical claim for the existence of such entity is being ridiculous and silly if they then turn around and say “i’m not going to even consider empirical data about this entity until someone gives me a good philosophical argument for doing so.”

    [eric]
    Because it seems to me that a believer can’t rationally claim significant effect/impact on the physical world on the one hand while simultaneously claiming ‘no empirical evidence/empirical evidence not relevant’ on the other.

    [VS] And I reply that that’s a philosophical/theological question, that we have to settle by doing those fields.

    Okay, I”ll bite. If you think that’s an unsettled question, give me the argument, evidence, or other justification for the position that an entity can materially change the world in a meaningful manner without empiricism being relevant to the claim. Tell me the argument for this other side, because right now, I’m not seeing it at all.

    And, incidentally, I’m pretty disappointed you didn’t even bother responding to the middle section of my last post. Is this because you agree that we can rationally presume the relevance of empirical data to such questions?

  79. #79 Verbose Stoic
    October 5, 2012

    eric,

    Been a bit busy lately, but finally getting back to it. I’ll start with one thing from the end:

    And, incidentally, I’m pretty disappointed you didn’t even bother responding to the middle section of my last post. Is this because you agree that we can rationally presume the relevance of empirical data to such questions?

    It’s a bit rich you expressing this disappointment considering all the times I chided you for ignoring entire sections of my comments, and especially since the part you ignoring in THIS reply answers your question:

    Do you want to concede my point about philosophy and drop the idea that it’s unflattering to philosophy, and focus on this instead? Otherwise, I have little interest in trying to answer this sort of question again and again when the real discussion that I entered into here was about a completely different question.

    Since that middle section at best was only relevant to what I was considering a different question, then it should be obvious why I didn’t address it. And you didn’t really address whether you accept my original statement, which was basically that in philosophy you have to argue for using empirical — or non-empirical, for that matter — methods to answer a question. That was, essentially, the extent of my argument. To put it clearer, you have to have an argument why for this question the answer is empirical. Now, the question that it seems you always had in mind was not that one, was that you think that for anything that might impact “the world”, you think there IS such an argument and so having to make a new argument would be pointless. Since I never suggested that you had to make the argument completely anew every time, we would be in agreement that that’s at least possible. So, then, you want to advance that argument and debate over it. Thus, I will presume that you concede that philosophy does not make an empirical or non-empirical assumption, and so that each question has to justify its use of those sorts of methods, and that science makes an empirical assumption and so doesn’t, and then move on to the next question. If you disagree with this, let me know.

    Anyway, to move to the other question some housekeeping is required. The first is that you slide in comments of “empirical data is relevant”, which is not quite what I’m denying. I may well have said that at some point, but I was wrong to use the term “relevant”. What I really meant was that for some propositions the truth or falsity of that proposition cannot be determined empirically or, perhaps, mostly empirically. Most of the work is non-empirical. That does NOT mean that there will be no parts of determining the truth or falsity of that proposition that will be empirical, and it does NOT mean that empirical data will be of no interest in settling the question. It just means that, at the end of it all, what justifies our belief that the proposition is true or false will not be primarily empirical data, but the non-empirical work done. For example, in determining what the concept of “moon” is, it is obvious that examples of the moons we see will be relevant, since they are instances of that concept and so the concept has to contain them. But we will not justify any conceptual property of a moon by saying that the moons we know of have that property; it will be justified by the conceptual analysis that will apply to all possible worlds. The same thing holds for moral questions. Since “Ought implies can”, our moral rules for humans will depend on what humans are, in fact, capable of … but it will not be that case that because humans are capable of doing something that that justifies what they ought to do.

    The next is your terminology over the world. Yes, you find this semantic nitpicking, but it’s critically important. When you talk about the “empirical world”, at first blush your contention that anything that impacts the empirical world will be justified or justifiable empirically seems like a tautology: well, if the world is empirical, then of course empirical data will be relevant. The problem, though, is that I’m not sure what you mean by “empirical world”. Again, at first blush, it looks like the world that we receive through the senses. But that leads us to the idea of a Kantian world of appearances, of a world of how it appears to us and a world of how things really are. Then, on the one hand, we can clearly see that empirical data – ie that of our senses — is relevant to what happens in it, but then on the other hand since that view is mediated we don’t know what is happening in the “real” world outside of our senses (you can read the paper on my blog of Science vs Science to see how physics proves mediation which risks the split, and Dewey’s response to that). So, then, we definitely know that there are things that impact the empirical world — the noumenal things — that we can’t prove exist or even can’t prove propositions about empirically, since they cause sense perceptions in us but the sense perceptions don’t tell us things about them. Now, we might not be able to get answers about them ANY way, but it would refute your claimed justification.

    “Physical world” could run us into similar problems, depending if you attach “physical” to “through the senses”. But it has its own unique problem that for the things we’re talking about, they are presumed to be non-physical. And surely it seems reasonable to say that propositions about non-physical things — like their existence — aren’t going to be primarily settled by the things that we use to figure out physical things. They’re different. So right here we have reason to think that the things we’re talking about might not be justified empirically, if empirical data is what we use or what gets us the physical world.

    So, from that, the only argument you can raise is the one you did: that if something affects the physical world or the world we see through the senses, then it must be proveable empirically. The first objection I have to this is … you haven’t proven that. You just asserted it, just like all the New Atheists do when they say that because it impacts the world science can study God. Sure, again, I’ll concede that if you make claims about what happened IN what our senses have access to THAT can be looked at with the senses, but can that get us the important propositions, including the existence claim? Why should I think it should, especially in light of the possible noumenal wrt the empirical and the possible non-physical wrt the physical?

    In addition, we have reasons to think that that might be false, and we can see that from the naturalism debate. Now, physical and natural things can all clearly be studied empirically; I’ll at least concede that much. But the things we’re talking about are claimed to be not physical and not natural, and it wasn’t just because someone tried looking for them empirically and failed; we have philosophical reasons to think that they are not physical or natural. But if you are going to presume that ANY natural explanation is superior to any non-natural one, then you run into the issue that you will always choose a natural explanation … meaning one that we can study with the senses. So, then, with that in place how could I ever prove the important things about things that are purported to not be empirical? Well, not with anything that makes a naturalistic presumption, because that is assuming the conclusion. But then also not with anything that presumes that anything that can affect what we see with the senses can be justified with empirical data, because that does the same thing. So we cannot presume that empirical data can settle the big questions, even about things that affect the empirical world, because if the things we are talking about have a significant non-empirical component, we wouldn’t be able to get that empirically by definition, and so couldn’t settle those propositions. We’d need something that can step us outside of empirical data … at which point, your presumption falls as we have good reason to think that the things we are looking for might not be empirical.

    Basically, for things that have a significant non-empirical component it is clear that there are going to be many propositions about it that cannot be settled empirically. So, you’d need something else for your contention to hold. You could, for example, argue that causation cannot work between the non-physical and physical, or the supernatural and natural. But, then, that depends on what it means to be a cause, or causation. That’s one of those conceptual problems that isn’t amenable to empirical justification. You certainly can’t say that all of the examples of causation you’ve seen are between things that are empirical only, because the answer to that is the very formal and seriously philosophical “Duh!”. Of COURSE all the examples of causation between things we can experience empirically are examples of things empirical interaction with each other, since that’s what we’re looking at. You can argue that we should see, then, things happening “spontaneously”, but then the reply is exactly the same as it was above: if you presume that all causes must be empirical, this comes under “currently unknown empirical case”, and if you don’t then you’ve given up the presumption that lets you justify your claim.

    So, then, I just don’t see how you can justify saying that, to bring it down to brass tacks, the existence of anything that impacts the empirical world must be provable empirically. And that’s what you need to get your case off the ground.

  80. #80 eric
    October 9, 2012

    VS:

    And you didn’t really address whether you accept my original statement, which was basically that in philosophy you have to argue for using empirical — or non-empirical, for that matter — methods to answer a question.

    I did, but for umpteen times +2: I reject your original statement. There are parts of philosophy for which it is true, but also significant parts for which it is false or should be false. So your statement is at best a poor generalization.

    Thus, I will presume that you concede that philosophy does not make an empirical or non-empirical assumption, and so that each question has to justify its use of those sorts of methods, and that science makes an empirical assumption and so doesn’t, and then move on to the next question. If you disagree with this, let me know.

    That paragraph is somewhat difficult to undertand. I would agree that philosophy as a whole does not take a single, unified stance on whether one needs a positive argument for emprical evidence before it will be admitted. Sometimes such an argument is needed, sometimes it isn’t. That is what makes your original claim such a bad generalization, because you are implying that it’s always needed. But then again, I may have misunderstood your point here, so if that answer doesn’t address it, I’m sorry.

    The next is your terminology over the world. Yes, you find this semantic nitpicking, but it’s critically important…“Physical world” could run us into similar problems…”

    Fine, okay, since you seem to have a good grasp of the sort of philosophical claims I’m talking about and are objecting to the verbiage I use to talk about them, YOU pick the term. That will be a lot faster than me picking a term, you telling me why its not a good one, me picking another term, you objecting, me picking…ad nauseum.

    that if something affects the physical world or the world we see through the senses, then it must be proveable empirically. The first objection I have to this is … you haven’t proven that.

    No, I said that in such cases empirical evidence is relevant. Obviously relevant, to the point where you don’t have to make a formal philosophical argument for considering it.

    Now, physical and natural things can all clearly be studied empirically; I’ll at least concede that much. But the things we’re talking about are claimed to be not physical and not natural,

    Great. This is progress. So if I claim to be able to turn water into wine, or claim someone else did that, you’ll concede that this is a claim for which empirical evidence can prima facie be considered relevant? No long philosophical argument need be proffered before we consider empirical evidence for/against such claims?

    And if I claim that some god-like entity exists and has manifested on earth in visible, audible, etc. form, same deal, right? No long philosophical argument need be proffered before we consider empirical evidence for/against such claims? We can just go ahead and consider the empirical evidence for such a claim without justifying that approach?

    So, then, I just don’t see how you can justify saying that, to bring it down to brass tacks, the existence of anything that impacts the empirical world must be provable empirically

    Well, that’s good,because I never actually said that. You keep claiming I’m talking about proving existence,but what I keep saying is much simpler: we should not have to argue rigorously about the relevance of empirical evidence for some philosophical claims, such as claims that an entity did so-and-so observable actions.

    Of course we cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of gods via empirical means. That runs into the problem of induction. At best, empirical evidence gives you confidence in one hypothesis over another. I’m guessing that one reason you are fighting against the relevance argument (i.e. that empirical evidence is prima facie relevant to claims about the existence of thestic, intervening deities) is because once empirical evidence is considered relevant, the confidence all goes in one direction, and it isn’t the directon you’d like.

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