Gene Expression

Levitt full nelsons Fuller

Norm Levitt throws an excellent broadside against Steve Fuller (yes, it is a polemic, but a delicious one!).

Update: Ron in the comments suggests we be cautious about accepting Levitt’s jeremiad in its totality. He concludes:

And from our own point of view, we must view the whole universe, including those parts which the candle of our scientific knowledge does not reveal. In this effort, religion, understood as the rational ordering of our values, ethics, wisdom and compassion, is an indispensable guide.

A does not imply Z here. That is, I cautioned that Levitt’s piece was a “polemic” and use the term “jeremiad” for a reason. Though he expresses a sentiment with which I tend to concur, his details exhibit a tendency to be overly glib and superficial in his treatment of the opposition. To give an example, Levitt characterizes William Dembski as a Protestant when he is an Orthodox Christian (a convert). Additionally, his characterization of Steve Fuller implies that he is a species of Post Modernist, when he technically is not.

I believe that characterizing your opponents precisely is essential to making a good reasoned argument. Levitt’s piece has a core with which I agree, but some of the scaffolding is sloppily applied. Both Higher Superstition and The Flight from Reason, tracts penned in part by Levitt, exhibit this tendency. They are polemics that offer a great deal of red meat, but suggest that the authors do not feel fully comfortable in the landscapes of nonsense which they traverse to pass judgement.

Nevertheless, there are real issues that Levitt brings up which need to be addressed, and the primary once is that Fuller and many scholars of science seem to lack any scientific background themselves. I do not necessarily believe that a scientific background is an automatic precondition for someone to study science as a social enterprise, anymore than being a black American is a necessary precondition for studying that community. Nevertheless, unlike being a black American, full participation in the scientific culture is accessible to scholars of science. Thomas Kuhn was a physicist before he became a philospher and historian of science. And a stint as a scientist is not necessary in my opinion to understand the culture of science, but some time in a lab as a tech might help, and that is within reach of almost anyone. An analogy with anthropology is appropriate here, one does not need to become a member of the tribe, but one must certainly live amongst them. When I expressed some of these opinions over at The Valve Jonathan Goodwin missed my point by saying:

Razib, I disagree very strongly with Fuller’s position about this–to the point of mystification–but it’s parochial to suggest that more time taking multiple-choice tests and dissecting things would have affected his later thinking. It’s just completely irrelevant to the argument he’s making.

If one believes that science is “taking multiple-choice tests” and “dissecting things” than one certainly doesn’t know science. Even a year as an undergraduate in a laboratory would disabuse you of such notions! Levitt does speak to a serious problem among scholars of science. This problem is exacerbated by the problem that science is not natural, so it is even harder to understand than a typical “alien” culture (see See the Naturalness of Science and the Unnaturalness of Religion).

All that said, I think Ron’s last point is tenditious. He states, “In this effort, religion, understood as the rational ordering of our values, ethics, wisdom and compassion, is an indispensable guide.” First, I do not believe religion in general is about a “rational” ordering of much of anything. Christianity has coopted the ethical philosophy of the classical world to generate systems of Natural Law which can be “proved” a priori, but I don’t think that these “proofs” are anything other that posteriori rationalizations of innate moral intuitions. Certainly a world without poetry, religion, literature or music would be poorer to most people, but some people are tone deaf, some people lack appreciation for poetic meter and emotion and others lack a interest in the interpersonal dynamics so central to literary exposition. And yes, some people simply do not perceive a need to populate their universe with supernatural agents which bring a “rational” ordering to the laws and dynamics which characterize our natural universe, nor is there a need for these for godlings to lay the stamp of divine favor upon moral laws which they believe are good and true because they express our innermost humanity in some fashion or form. They are no less human for it.

A common refrain by those who criticize my enthusiasm for science is that there is more to life than science. My response is because I do not speak of it does not mean I do not give it its due. Similarly, the assault on the structure of modern science that the likes of Steve Fuller are engaging in to further their own careers and pet theories is naturally going to invite a sharp and vociferous response. But never confuse this response with the totality of experience and sentiment of the responders, a reflexive kick back in the face of an assault does not encapsulate the range of action of said individual.

Related: Fuller full of himself and Amongst the Savage Scientists.


  1. #1 Tracy P. Hamilton
    February 24, 2006

    I love a good polemic. Not only that, but he is right.

  2. #2 Rachel
    February 24, 2006

    That was a great read. I was largely unaware of the science studies crowd, and this article had some good arguments as to why they think what they do.

  3. #3 JP
    February 25, 2006

    We study them [scientists] as people, not minor deities. We observe them in their workplaces, interpret their documents, and propose explanations for their activities that make sense of them, given other things we know about human beings.

    Sounds reasonable to me; I don’t understand how he gets from there to that crap about “alternative science”.

  4. #4 Ron
    February 25, 2006

    A great piece by Levitt and a well-deserved trouncing for Fuller. But I would urge caution here. I question Levitt�s dismissal of the motivations of all who might be suspicious of the notion that our current scientific image of nature has settled once and for all our fundamental questions about what exists and how we know about it. To question creationism as ideological nonsense is not to accept that Darwin�s Victorian view of life and the universe full tilt.

    A candle in the dark does not illuminate the entire cosmos and indeed may give us a highly misleading view of reality if we try to project what we think we know beyond the glow of our current knowledge into the dark beyond. Though our science provides no unequivocable evidence for a universe of �moral equity and ultimate justice�, say, it does not deny the possibility either, nor can atheists legitimately claim their ideology to be fully �science based�. Another trap is to believe that American wingnut Christiantity is representative of all, or even most, religious thought.

    I don�t think that refraining from arrogance about what science teaches us about our world, or from believing that our current science is the sole source of such knowledge, is necessarily motivated by a reactionary desire to reinstall �supersitition� and theocracy. Knowledge is always situated, to use Haraway�s accurante phrase, it exists from a point of view and this is always its limitation, but also the source of its ultimate legitimacy. And from our own point of view, we must view the whole universe, including those parts which the candle of our scientific knowledge does not reveal. In this effort, religion, understood as the rational ordering of our values, ethics, wisdom and compassion, is an indispensable guide.

  5. #5 melior in France
    February 25, 2006

    Hey, someone has to stick up for all the alchemists, magicians, fundamentalists, and con artists out there. Their points of view are even more “right” than science, Fuller says. Perhaps, if you define “right” to mean something other than “applicable to the universe we live in” he is correct.

  6. #6 Ron
    February 25, 2006

    Thank you for pointing to McCauleys interesting article. Yet it seems to support my argument more than yours, viz religion as a form of rationality. Irrationality, like science, is highly unnatural in McCauleys sense, and actually requires considerable effort and incentives .

    I particularly enjoy the exercise of having my students write down a series of random integers and then do a simple statistical test for randomness. Only students who resort to some mnemonic device are actually able to achieve true randomness. Anyone who has classified satellite imagery has run across the problem of apparent patterns in the pixels, that, when enhanced by a variety of computer techniques, become remarkably clear and believable. Only if we visit the actual terrain to ground-truth our classification do we disabuse ourselves of our reifications. Do these patterns exist? Yes, they do and our minds are expert in picking them out and even giving them familiar forms and explanations. Yet, on the ground, we find that these patterns have no relevance do our empirical perception of reality.

    Much is made in the discussion of religion versus science of the role of intentionality. The superstitious see agents everywhere and impute intentions in every event. The candlelight of science disperses the dark of intentionality reducing events to mechanical causality. I just cant get comfortable with this description, though. The universe is intentional, it has to be, because it is only the thoroughly intentional mind that can perceive it. I am reminded of the wonderful paper by Evelyn Fox Keller on the biological gaze that shows how much preping biological samples must go through to reveal the underlying structures that biology attempts to find and explain. We construct our reality, using an number of tools, including the sophisticated empirical verification techniques of science (rarely) or more commonly the intentional explanations of common sense.

    But religious or even magical thought, in which the world is populated by intentional beings and all actions result in morally equitable results is not at war with a scientific view of the causality of events. It was Evans-Pritchard in his classic ethnography on Zande magic who pointed to the example of the second spear. In an elephant hunt there was always a second spear, needed to kill the prey, socially speaking. Who threw the acknowledged second spear determined patterns of dividing the meat among the families that participated in the hunt. Death by witchcraft, say the Zande, is the second spear. No one denies the physical causes of a mans death, but how do we explain its irony (why did he happen to be under de rotten grainery just when it finally collapsed due to physical causes), its social impact (who will benefit from his death, what happens to his wives?)this is where analysis of witchcraft, agents and intentions, comes into play. Science cannot provide answers to these questions, which is why I say that religious thought is indepensable for most people.

    And it is as the Dalai Lama recently remarked, if science empirically contradicts a Buddhist belief, even a central one such as karma and rebirth, then Buddhist belief will be revised. No problem.

  7. #7 razib
    February 25, 2006


    1) i think i can buy religion is a system of rationalization, but not rationality. in other words, religion can be conceived as a form of abduction, but it lacks the rigor and formality of systematic deduction. whatever ‘disagreemant’ we have is likely due to semantic confusion, so let’s keep this question open.

    2) again, the issue is most people. some of us are ok without deep ontologies and definitive ultimate causes.* i think an understanding of probability help, life is after a sequence of improbable events.

    * or, perhaps we are OK without the need for certainty and confidence in our ultimate causes and ontologies.

  8. #8 razib
    February 25, 2006

    ok…i’ve read the comments again, and thought. i will provisionally retract my contention that religion is not ‘rational.’ broadly speaking religion is a form of reasoning derived from sensory input operated upon innate intuitions, modulated by a dollop of cultural schemas.

    do religion and science conflict fundamentally? no. do religion and science conflict operationally? in some sense, yes. sophisticated religionists often rigorously maintain an orthogonality between the domains of science and religion, a la s.j. gould’s ‘nonoverlapping magisteria.’ but, unsophisticated religionists who can barely pronounce terms like ‘magisteria’ and don’t really understand science or its process to a deep level regularly conflate the two, resulting in the conflict (conceiving of science as a collection of facts as opposed to a process working toward explanatory models). granted, some scientists and non-scientists do use science as a cudgel in the service of scientism or a form of all pervasive positivism, but that is a separate and subsidiary issue.

    but as to religion being indispensable…well, it surely isn’t for me, and isn’t for many who i know. neither do i believe that morality or ethics would be irrelevant if not for a religious grounding, simply because the connection between ethics and supernaturalism is not exclusive nor consistent. the mixing of ethics and religion are beneficial…assuming you agree with the system of ethics given legitimacy by religion. i agree that most people in any given society will be religious, but if you subtracted religion (supernatural) from the system i will not grant that amorality will break out.

  9. #9 Dan Dare
    February 25, 2006


    I am not sure that questions of moral equity or justice or even religious belief are outside the jurisdiction of science, but it probably requires a much deeper understanding of how human brains work.

    In other words, faith, justice and equity are concepts constructed by human brains and an explanation for these constructs probably lies somewhere in the structure of the brain and perhaps in the genes that helped to build it. I am nowhere near ready to concede that science cannot understand these issues.

    What is much more dubious is whether these purely psychological states have any wider cosmic significance. That to me, is the really questionable proposition.

    That they have some kind of significance in the history of human evolution is another matter entirely.

  10. #10 Ron
    February 26, 2006

    This gets into sticky issues, but the question is really about the limitations of human thought, assuming all honest thinking tries, in principle, to be rational, meaning something like consistent, logical and sensible. That is, some religious ideas can be irrational (bad), should be criticized from a religious point of view and purged from the system (eg ID), just as erroneous thinking is purged in science. But, as we well know, from Gdels proof and other lines of reasoning, there are definite, inherent limits to any system of rational thought. That is, and system of rationality can generate question within the system that are undecidable from within the system. This situation is colorfully expressed in paradoxes such as The Liar, The Barber or Russells Paradox about the set of all sets, etc. In fact, whenever we start trying to be rational about Ultimate Questions, questions about the Universe, theories of everything, etc. We inevitably run into paradox. No amount of scientific progress can change the fact of these inherent limitations to human rationality and this is precisely why science at least as it is formulated in a given era, cannot, even in principle, answer all of our questions about reality.

    If we add that to the image of the candle in the dark that scientific rationality reveals only a tiny portion of what seems to be a quite large and surprising universe, then it is clear that we need more than science to make even mundane daily decisions about our lives, let alone to address existential questions. That is, we need to use, and do use naturally (in McCauleys sense), other modes of rationality than science. I think we have to say that these other modes are sources of valid knowledge about the universe that cannot contradict scientific knowledge but that go beyond it. I would call at least some of these other modes of valid rational thought, religious or spiritualor even magical.

    Just because some politically motivated fundamentalists tried to cram Intelligent Design down our throats doesnt mean that all religious or spiritual modes of thought are irrational or invalid.

  11. #11 Dan Dare
    February 26, 2006

    I’m not sure that Godel’s proof means what you think it means. It certainly follows that no logical system can prove all its own true propositions. But so what? We invent new axiomatic systems as we find we need them.

    There is not the slightest evidence so far that Godel’s theorem imposes any kind of limit on our ability to understand of the physical universe. No paradoxes of any kind have yet been identified in nature. The nearest is the possibility of naked singularities in general relativity and black hole theory. And that is still very controversial. It’s quite likely that it won’t hold up in a quantum version.

    “the candle in the dark’ that scientific rationality reveals only a tiny portion of what seems to be a quite large and surprising universe”

    I’m not happy with this either. Metaphysical speculations about multiple universes and the like remain, IMHO beyond legimate enquiry for empirical physics. I urge great caution in taking this kind of thing too seriously. The last word is far from in, whether we are talking about cosmology, or the ultimate interpretation of quantum theory. I regard this kind of thing as hardcore fantasy porn for physicists.

    Why do people so often assume that if God exists, he will be found in the mysterious, impenetrable parts of nature? Why does it have to be a God of the gaps? Maybe science is a royal 12 lane highway leading directly to God’s throne-room. That seems at least as possible to me. Even if one is going to believe in God. How do you know he doesn’t want to be found?

    There is a certain kind of mind that seems to crave the mysterious for its own sake. Be careful of glorifying mystery. It is knowledge that deserves our respect. Glorifying mystery is glorifying ignorance. It is raising ignorance to the level of God.

    At least don’t be surprised if you find that those of us who see knowledge as the ultimate good, disagree with your mysticism.

  12. #12 Ron
    February 26, 2006

    Gdels proof does show that there are prefectly predictable limits to any axiomatic representation we may care to use as a model of the physical universe.

    Actually we don’t often make up new axiomatic systems. Rather, we are continually ‘fixing’ them by recurring to propositions outside the system to resolve the paradoxes and get on with the business of life (or research). Zeno’s paradox does not impede in the least my defending myself from my neighbors dog with a rock.

    I guess you are trying to discredit my point of view by calling it ‘mysticism’ and ‘metaphysical’. I would say the shoe fits on the other foot. Any scientist worth his salt is accutely aware of the fact that his ignorance in his field of knowledge vastly outweighs his knowledge. It is our ignorance I refer to, not “the mysterious” (much less “multiple universes”!). I am calling for realism not mysticism. Projecting our scientific worldview into areas that we know very little about and assuming that it will all shake out some day is precisely the metaphysical leap we must not make if we are to avoid a kind of scientistic fundamentalism that seems to to be chic these days. Just the fact,ma’am.

    And a simple fact is that any scientific understanding is contingent on where we stand now in space and time. It is situated, therefore biased, limited and empirical. We just can’t wait around for our biased science to answer all the mysteries. But the real mysticism comes in when we claim that it will, eventually, explain everthing, and assign it the status of “ultimate good”. Sounds a lot like the God of the gaps to me.

  13. #13 Dan Dare
    February 26, 2006

    “Actually we don’t often make up new axiomatic systems”

    Wrong. Mathematicians do this for a living. They get paid for it.

    “Projecting our scientific worldview into areas that we know very little about and assuming that it will all shake out some day is precisely the metaphysical leap we must not make if we are to avoid a kind of scientistic fundamentalism that seems to to be chic these days”

    Scientistic fundamentalism is what used to be called healthy curiosity. Before PoMo defeatists and losers decided that they had to tear it down.

    No one knows whether science has limits or not. Not even you. You point to all that we do not know, and urge “realism”. I point to all that we have already learned and urge, “press on”.

    My optimism is based on past successes. Your pessimism is based on a prerational desire to preserve the “unknown” so that you can have something mysterious left to grovel in front of.

  14. #14 Dan Dare
    February 27, 2006

    There’s something else about Godel.
    The incompleteness theorem only applies to systems that are more complex than arithmetic.

    But how do we know that the system of the world is not based on something simpler and more primitive than this?

    At the deepest core of physical reality there may be something really primitive: Say like cellular automata. Then Godel need not apply, and the whole notion of unprovable truths would fall in a heap.

    At worst Godel might mean that no single theory of everything would apply to the whole world. In any given theory some truths would remain unprovable. So that just means you will always need more than one theory.

    So I would interpret Godel’s incompleteness theorem’s implications for physics something like this:

    Unless your theory of everything is more primitive than arithmetic, no single mathematical model of the world can ever be used to establish every truth. There will always be propositions in your theory that are true but unprovable. As a result, all sufficiently complex theories will always have limited domains.

    Science will always need more than one theory to describe the full richness of the world in terms of complex theoretical constructs.

  15. #15 Oran Kelley
    March 1, 2006

    I think it is well for sciencetists and those interested in science to know that vis-a-vis folks like Fuller, they are in a position of strength. You needn’t take up a scorched earth policy on every point he brings up.

    Everything that’s arisen out of 1970s French theory is more or less dead, intellectually, so I’d suggest that a policy of constructive engagement may be in order.

    Fuller’s writing arise out of a lot of foolishness (self-contradictory epistemological skepticism; tendencies toward wishful-thinking & spirituality) but there are also more solid causes for his skepticism of science. And Levitt’s own simplistic scientific triumphalism is one of them.

    Arguing over Godel’s proof just isn’t germain. We’re very very far away from a single theory of everything anyhow, and especially where it most counts socially, there’s plenty of doubt and plenty of blank space sand plenty of errors in science.

    Theerfore a bit of humility is still in order, even if one day science *will* produce a theory of everything.

    What’s that mean? Well, in my view it means that science can use to be a bit more self-critical, by and large; That scientists have to be a bit more self-disciplined and self-conscious about their own wishful thinking; and that scientists ought to be much more reluctant to encourage anyone to apply incomplete or possibly flawed finding and interpretations to social policy.

    One of the things that a lot of scientists have lost over the years, I think, is a sense of judiciousness and a strong sense of the difference between what is actually known and what we may wish to be true.

    Unlike folks like Fuller, articulate scientist *do* command a great deal of respect and weild a great deal of cultural capital (compare: sales of Pinker or Dawkins vs. sales of Fuller). With that power comes responsibility, a responsibility to be careful.

    By the way: what’s “tenditious”?


  16. #16 Dan Dare
    March 1, 2006

    I think he meant tendentious.

    Oran you’re right, but it’s a different issue. For instance the social implications of technology are absolutely a matter for social and political control.

    But Matthew was saying science and reason themselves are fundamentally limited. How does anybody know that?

    Of course there are sciences that are at such a basic level of development that you could barely consider them to be sciences. Like many of the so-called “social sciences”. They are as much speculative philosophy as science.

    But physics? chemistry? molecular biology?

    Obviously there’s a complexity frontier that we’re always pushing against, that’s why we use computers so much these days. But is reason itself limited?

    All I’m saying is you are entitled to think so but not everyone will follow you there. And I certainly won’t, without a lot more proof. (And Godel isn’t proof).

    Also it’s not scientism. It’s rationalism. And you can believe in God and Reason. In fact you can believe in reason because you believe in God. It doesn’t have to be a god-of-the-gaps (in knowledge). Maybe God wants us to figure it all out. Maybe that’s his plan.

  17. #17 Dan Dare
    March 1, 2006

    Sorry that was Ron not Matthew. I was having a conversation with Matthew on a different thread.

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