On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science:


As a philosopher, you might expect me both to want to carve out some intellectual territory for philosophers to occupy, and also to resist the thought that philosophical questions and problems are either non-questions and non-problems or else questions that will be answered and problems that will be solved, if at all, through an application of the scientific method. I won’t disappoint. However, while I acknowledge that there are limits to science, I will argue these limits typically offer little comfort to religious, New Age, and other folk looking for ways to immunize their beliefs against scientific refutation.

As that last sentence suggests, science has been so successful in generating knowledge that it can be threatening to other beliefs. Do other belief systems have an independent validity, in domains of knowledge that are simply not the business of science, or can a scientific approach prevail in all domains? As Law says, the desire to limit science often originates from a desire to indulge beliefs that derive from wishful thinking, without feeling any need to supply science-grade evidence to back them up.

Law discusses Stephen Gould’s proposal of “non-overlapping magesteria” of knowledge, of which science would be only one. In contrast, scientism is the wholesale rejection of NOMA and the declaration that knowledge is a unified whole, and that the basic ways of finding things out that we refer to as “science” apply universally.

Let’s also be clear that scientism is not the claim that science can answer all questions, it’s the claim that there are no independent “ways of knowing” that can answer questions that science cannot. It is easy to think of questions that are meaningful but which we will never be able to answer (I’ve previously given some examples, including: What did Julius Caesar eat on the day three days before his eighth birthday, and did he stroke a dog on that day?).

Law is sympathetic to much of scientism and I won’t address the many parts of his chapter with which I agree. I’ll focus only on two areas where Law dissents from scientism: Continue reading

Telling science from pseudoscience and the demarcation problem

demarcPhilosophers of Science have long puzzled over what they call “the” demarcation problem, of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In the early 20th Century the Logical Positivists proposed the verification principle, that a statement was meaningful and scientific only if it could be empirically verified. Karl Popper then proposed a similar idea, that a scientific idea is one that can be falsified.

There is a lot of truth in both proposals, but neither can be interpreted too narrowly. The problem is that no statement can be verified or falsified in isolation. Science constructs whole webs of ideas, and it is the whole construct that is then compared to empirical data, to be adjusted and improved as necessary. Further, a statement such as Newton’s law of gravity can never be verified in the general sense, all we can say is that it worked well enough — as part of the wider web of ideas — in the particular instance we tested. Nor is it straightforward to falsify such a law. If our overall model is inconsistent with an observation then we could indeed alter one of the laws; but we might also overcome the inconsistency by altering some other part of the overall model; or we might doubt the reliability of the observations. Continue reading

Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

In 2015 ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra and proceeded to destroy ancient ruins that they regarded as pagan or polytheistic. The World Heritage Site monuments were typically 2000 years old. Did ISIS have a right to destroy them? Most of us would say no, and would lament the loss of a heritage that cannot be replaced.

In saying that we are being culture-ist. That is, we are placing the values of our culture above those of ISIS, who, after all, would regard their acts as virtuous and as mandated by the highest authority, namely their religion. I readily plead guilty to be unapologetically culturist.

This comparison might be considered inappropriate, but in Nature this week I read about a 12,600-yr-old skeleton, the “Anzick Child”, that had been passed to Native American groups for reburial. The article lists 12 other skeletons, all older than 8000 yrs, that have either been reburied or might be. Reburial here effectively means their permanent loss, since they would decay relatively quickly under normal burial conditions.

As a scientist I am saddened by the loss of irreplaceable material that could tell us much about the past history of humans. I would regard such remains as part of the common heritage of us all and am unhappy about one group destroying them in the same way that I am unhappy about a group taking it upon itself to destroy Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddha statues. This is obviously very culturist of me, but then I’ve already pleaded guilty. Continue reading

What the Muslim Council of Britain unfortunately did not say about Louis Smith

Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)

As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.

We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead! Continue reading

The Southern Poverty Law Center brands Maajid Nawaz an “extremist”

So the Southern Poverty Law Center have now declared that everyone must submit to Islamic rules about blasphemy, and that if one does not then one is an “anti-Muslim extremist”. How have we come to this? How can it be that those who think that participation in a religion should be a free choice, and that we should not be obliged to submit to the rules and diktats of someone else’s religion, are now regarded as “extremists”?

It used to be the case that “free speech” included the right to speak in ways that upset people. The point was often made that speech that upsets no-one does not need protection; it is only speech that someone else does not want you to say that needs support from the fundamental principle that in a free society we need to be able to speak our mind and criticize others.

But no, “free speech” now has clear limits. If someone else is at all upset by anything you say, then you are making them “feel unsafe”, and making them feel unsafe is an act of violence. And if you want to pursue your speech down that road, then you are an extremist, the sort of person whom the Southern Poverty Law Center was set up to oppose. Continue reading

Deathbed conversions and the argument that Christians like best

Christians really don’t like atheists. Since their worldview is founded in faith (as opposed to evidence) the absence of faith worries them. Their defence mechanisms include denying that atheists exist (they’re just angry at God), or believing that when the chips are down atheists will revert to belief (“There are no atheists in foxholes”). Another tactic is to denigrate atheism as an intellectual position; it’s not enough to disagree with Dawkins’s God Delusion, it needs to be dismissed as puerile and lacking any knowledge of the topic. Or they try to maintain that atheism is a faith position just like theirs (“It takes more faith to believe that all of this arose by blind chance”). Atheism as a faith position doesn’t worry them, any more than other religions worry them, since that would accept the central role of faith. But atheism as a considered lack of belief, owing to the lack of evidence, is anathema.

Hence a favourite tactic: wait until a prominent atheist dies, and then declare that they had a deathbed conversion and died accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The beauty of this tactic is that said atheist can no longer speak up and refute the suggestion. Further, if any other atheist publicly doubts the claim, they can then be accused of dogmatically rejecting the claim for ideological reasons. Christians thus invent such stories about anyone they dislike, from Charles Darwin to Thomas Paine. In fiction, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, they can do deathbed conversions for real (as it were). Continue reading

Reflections on Brexit and the moral presumption of the EU

Well that was a surprise; like most people I’d presumed that the British people would “always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” and so vote, grudgingly, to remain in the EU. Among the acres of comment on this topic I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of Brexit — I have mixed feelings and would have preferred to stay in a reformed EU, if that were on offer — instead I’m going to completely ignore the economics and reflect on just one aspect: the presumption that joining in with and being part of a larger state is somehow morally virtuous in its own right, rather than being something to be decided on pragmatic considerations or purely by cultural preference.

“I’m sure the deserters will not be welcomed with open arms” said Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, as though membership of the EU were a moral obligation from which non-compliance would be rightfully punished.

The presumption that “ever closer union” of Europe is morally mandated has had dire consequences, including the notion that the righteousness of the project justifies doing it badly, and — more seriously — that its righteousness overrides the lack of democratic assent. Thus the EU’s leaders are currently anxious to prevent further referendums — preventing their people from having any say — since that might reveal deep dissatisfaction with the EU much more widespread than the UK. No matter, the democratic will of the people is less important than the moral principle of ever closer union. Continue reading