John Pieret – who is to blame for the recent kerfuffles here – surveys the trouble he started:
As usual, there is much talking past each other.
I think Russell Blackford has, perhaps unintentionally, hit on the problem that we “accommodationists” see with the “incompatibleists.” In defending Coyne, Russell says: the “anti-accommodationist camp … see a genuine and serious difficulty in reconciling a worldview based on science and reason with worldviews based on religion.” I agree!
But the question really is whether “a worldview based on science and reason” is the same thing as “science.” I fully accept that the worldviews of Coyne, Blackford and the other Gnu Athiests are incompatible with religion of any sort … and will fight for their right to express it. They do not, however, have a right to identify, particularly in public schools in America*, their worldviews with “science” … any more than the IDers do.
(His asterisk goes to his discussion of Michael Ruse’s silly and wrong claim that gnus could cause constitutional problems for evolution education. That’s for another day.)
I think his broad point here is right, and it’s a useful distinction to draw between science and a scientific worldview. It’s one that also jumped out at me in reading Massimo Pigliucci’s review of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape. Pigliucci notes that he agrees with various elements of Harris’s agenda – moral realism, religion having “absolutely nothing” to do with morality, opposition to moral relativism – but then explains where Harris goes wrong:
I do not think that science amounts to the sum total of rational inquiry (a position often referred to as scientism), which he seems to assume. I do think that science should inform the specifics of our ethical discussions, and hence is in an important sense pertinent to ethics, but I maintain that ethical questions are inherently philosophical in nature, not scientific. Ignoring this distinction, I think, does a disservice to both science and philosophy. Finally, as a corollary of my rejection of scientism above, I do think that there are significant differences between science and philosophy…
In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he “do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between ‘science’ and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss ‘facts.’” But wait a minute! If that is the case, if we can define “science” as any type of rational-empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his) then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says “How Science Can Determine Human Values” (my italics). One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here. …
Harris’ chief claim throughout the book is that moral judgments are a kind of fact, and that as such they are amenable to scientific inquiry. First of all, the second statement does not at all follow from the first. Surely we can agree that the properties of triangles in Euclidean geometry are “facts,” in the sense that nobody who understands Euclidean geometry can opine that the sum of the angles in a triangle is not 180° and get away with it. But we do not use science, or any kind of empirical evidence at all, to arrive at agreement about such facts.
Read the rest! It’s good!
Two things to note here. First, Harris appears to be attempting the same shifting of baseline that Pieret notes in Blackford’s post. It’s one thing to defend science as an institution, as a body of knowledge, or as a process that can answer certain sorts of questions. It would quite another to declare that any worldview based on claims not amenable to scientific testing is incompatible with science.* After all, Isaac Newton created the framework of modern physics while also pursuing alchemy and a flawed Biblical chronology. He did not have a purely scientific worldview, but he tried to apply his scientific approach to his unscientific enterprises (with predictably miserable results), and he did exceptional science when working within the bounds of science. Many people with worldviews that are less bizarre than Newtons do the same.
Indeed, as Pigliucci argues compellingly, it would be wrong to expect science and reason to provide the sole basis for any worldview at all, as individual values inevitably shape the way one uses science and reason. Our values serve somewhat like axioms do for mathematicians or logicians, and good logic is only as valid as its premises. Recall that Ambrose Bierce defined logic as: “The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.” Which brings us to the second point, which is the dangerous game Harris and other gnus play in trying to redefine science.
Standard definitions of science emphasize not only logic and reason and empiricism, but also a set of processes, some specific to an investigator, and some dependent on a community of scholars. Those processes impose some limits: an inability to evaluate claims that either produce no empirical results (e.g., the purely supernatural), or whose results are entirely personal and available only to introspection (e.g., literary quality). Those processes also exist to weed out inappropriate reliance on unjustified axioms or assumptions, to minimize the impact of value judgments on results reported as much as is humanly possible. Sometimes that’s important to do, but sometimes it isn’t. Elections in a representative democracy are a time when values are probably the most critical matter, and a value for empirical evidence is only one of the things I look for in a candidate.
Now Harris might insist that he isn’t redefining science, just blurring the lines between science and other fact-based enterprises, but even this is not without its problems. For instance, literary criticism, art history, and indeed other forms of history are all “intellectual context[s] in which we discuss facts” about the contents of various books, paintings, or historical records, but I don’t think Harris means to toss them all into the hopper. Or maybe he does! Certainly other gnus have been less cautious. Larry Moran, for instance, says “science is a way of knowing based on rational thought, skepticism, and evidence.” And Jerry Coyne takes it as “rational and empirical investigation.” It should be noted that Russell Blackford, a philosopher, takes a stance more in line with standard philosophy of science, and PZ Myers has disavowed this overly-broad definition as well. Contrast those views with the definition offered by the National Academy of Sciences: “The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.” This definition is offered after a longer paragraph emphasizing the interplay of observations and theories, the iterative process of refinement of theories as new data arrive, and the new sorts of data gathered to evaluate those revisions, and also the importance of having “other scientists confirm the observations independently and carry out additional studies.” “In these ways,” NAS explains, “scientists continually arrive at more accurate and more comprehensive explanations of particular aspects of nature.” Scientific knowledge is not “complete and final,” in the way that Pigliucci’s example of triangle geometry is.
Setting aside the various philosophical problems with the attempted re-definitions†, I’m troubled by any effort to redefine science to serve a political or religious agenda, and I can’t see what other purpose is served by the redefinitions. I opposed it when creationists tried to redefine science in Kansas science standards, and I’ll oppose political redefinitions of science elsewhere, no matter the source. That’s what I think it means to defend science, and that’s my calling.
Obviously, the definition of science has changed over time, and will surely continue to. I’m not opposing any redefinition, only political or religious redefinitions. Defining science is notoriously hard, and it’s sensible for scientists to be examining philosophers’ attempts to systematize what they do. So it’d be one thing if working scientists like Coyne and Moran were engaging with the extant literature in the philosophy of science, finding problems with standard approaches to demarcation of science, or with accounts of scientific processes, and then publishing in the philosophy literature to propose a superior approach. But if they’re engaging that literature on any but the most cursory level, I don’t see it. And that’s fine, too. Birds can benefit from the existence of ornithology even if they don’t study it.
But what’s troubling is the dismissive attitude to the extant literature on philosophy displayed by, for instance, Sam Harris. Pigliucci notes “in the first footnote to chapter 1,” Harris quipping: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” Pigliucci replies: “That’s it? The whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed because Sam Harris finds it boring?” He goes on to note – as we did at TfK – “The most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato, in his Euthyphro dialogue (which goes, predictably, entirely unmentioned in The Moral Landscape),” and adds “Moral relativism [a bete noir of Harris's book] too has been the focus of sustained and devastating attack in philosophy, for instance by thinkers such as Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn, and this is thanks to the large metaethical literature that Harris finds so increases the degree of boredom in the universe.”
When I raised Euthyphro, and took on an earlier iteration of Harris’s dismissal of the field he purports to be revolutionizing, I concluded:
Serious people who want to advance a field of study may arrive at their conclusions without having a deep knowledge of the field’s history, but before taking that argument to the public, they first present it to the experts for what scientists call “peer review,” and what Harris seems to think is just boring jabber.
It would be a respectable position to argue that some fields of philosophy have become so esoteric and jargon-bound as to be uninteresting to the general public. But it is not a respectable position to simultaneously argue that such a field is crucial to all society and is to be your own life’s work. If it’s important enough to write a book about, it’s important enough to shop around to relevant experts for peer review – ideally through the formal channels created by journals [and relevant experts] – appropriately citing prior work on the problem and engaging with the responses of professionals. That’s how science works, and it’s how philosophy works, too. [I'd add now that it's what anything resembling a "scientific worldview" ought to demand.]
There is a name for people who declare that their ideas are too important and earth-shattering to be reviewed by relevant experts, or even to bother situating in the contexts of historical dialogue on their topic, and that they alone are brilliant enough to develop the pearls they now offer. The name is “cranks.”
Those cranks include perpetual motion advocates and creationists. This suggestion of crankery – it should be clear – is not a personal judgment about people, but about particular sets of claims and behaviors. Linus Pauling was not a crank when he was hunting for the structure of DNA, or when he developed the concept of electronegativity, or when he identified the mechanism behind the sickle cell anemia (the first time any genetic disorder was mapped in such detail). He wasn’t a crank in his work on the nature of chemical bonds (which won him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry). He also wasn’t a crank in his work for nuclear disarmament and for world peace (which won him a Nobel Peace Prize). But he was a crank in his work on vitamin C. Sam Harris’s behavior around The Moral Landscape has been cranky, but that doesn’t mean his neuroscience research is anything but top notch.
Maybe the gnus are mounting the sort of thoughtful, considered critique of philosophy of science that I describe above, and I’ve just not been reading the right journals. Or maybe their intent isn’t to redefine science, and I’m getting hung up on informal comments that are meant to refer back to the consensus view on the nature of science. But it sure doesn’t seem that way. It seems like – through the effort to establish a “scientific worldview” and the related effort to redefine science – they’re trying to annex science for their own political and (a)theological agenda, and I have a problem with that.
* Blackford leaves a way out of that objection by saying that the worldview should be “based on science and reason,” and not “based only on science and reason,” but that only gets us so far. After all, theology is a field typically defined as a rational and systematic study of religion. Its discourse proceeds using standard rules of logic and derives evidence from a variety of empirically measurable sources, including scientific findings facts about the contents of various books, among other inputs. Which is to say, it is based on science and reason and other things. But if we accept this as sufficient to make a worldview “based in science and reason,” we wouldn’t be arguing about the compatibility of a worldview based in science and reason with a worldview based in religion.” To distinguish those, we’d need to exclude sources other than science and reason, which is why I treat it as if he meant something like “…based only on ….”
† The problems include the standard attack on logical positivism and the overbroadness of these definitions. Not only might theology fit under these umbrellas (see note above), but pseudo-sciences including astrology and creationism could, too. Any pseudoscience will at least purport to be based on empirical evidence and reason, with sophisticated ones crafting self-consistent logical frameworks from incorrect premises, then fitting evidence into that framework. The evidence is usually heavily edited and the logic contorted to reach predetermined conclusions, but focusing only on logic and empiricism doesn’t get you a clean demarcation of the issues most in need of being demarked.