Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of New Atheism and scientism

The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is a vocal critic of “New Atheism” and of scientism. He has recently written a paper in Midwest Studies in Philosophy analysing “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement”. Parts are interesting and insightful, though unfortunately at times it strays into sneering, rather than disagreeing with and arguing against people. As a proponent of both “new” atheism and scientism I’m writing this response.

Pigliucci states that the defining characteristics of “New Atheism” (a term coined by the media, by the way, not by the “New Atheists” themselves) are, first, popularity (hurrah!), and, second, that: “the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more force-fully on science than on philosophy”. This is perceptive, and indeed some New Atheists have been scornful of philosophy.

Pigliucci remarks on the “scientistic turn” of the atheist movement, and offers:

Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

The second of these definitions is close to the mark, though I’d phrase it rather that all “human knowledge and understanding” is ultimately empirical, that there are no known demarkation lines where rules of evidence and reason stop applying, and that we can call this evidence- and reason-based exploration of empirical reality “science”. Thus to the extent that philosophy or any other discipline produces well-founded answers it is part of the same seamless ensemble of knowledge called “science”.

Massimo Pigliucci

Professor Massimo Pigliucci of the City University of New York

Pigliucci is right that, whereas in the past the champions of atheism were usually philosophers (Hume, D’Holbach, Russell, Ayer, etc), the New Atheists are more often scientists. Philosophers have a tendency to denigrate scientists as being philosophically unsophisticated, which is partly true and partly unfair, and also partly reciprocated: many scientists share the sentiment of Richard Feynman who explained that he didn’t care whether his son wanted to become a scientist, or what job he ended up doing, so long as he was happy, “but they always manage to get back at you, my son wants to become a goddamn philosopher!”.

Thus Pigliucci says that:

Dawkins’s The God Delusion … has been criticized on different grounds, ranging from a failure to engage with serious theology (assuming there is such thing) or at least philosophy of religion, to caricaturing its target into a hardly recognizable straw man, to eschewing counter-criticism aimed at highlighting the carnage that has historically been brought about by secular-atheistic regimes during the twentieth century.

The phrase “failure to engage with serious theology (assuming there is such thing)” is interesting wording. Is Pigliucci merely reporting that such criticisms have been made, or does he want to imply that they have merit? He seems to realise that there is no “serious theology” that is actually based on evidence, and thus that a failure to engage with it is not a fault, yet still wants to fault Dawkins anyhow. As for caricaturing its target, well, the sort of popular religion addressed in The God Delusion is indeed very popular and influential, and thus entirely fair game.

New Atheism

Further, it is Pigliucci who strawmans here by suggesting that the “secular-atheistic regimes” that wrought carnage in the twentieth century were somehow products of atheism/secularism, when they weren’t, they were products of totalitarian communism (with atheism being a by-product of their intolerance for any alternative power base, such as religion).

Pigliucci lays into The God Delusion at length. He remarks that much of it rehashes well-known objections to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god, saying that they are not new (did anyone claim that they were?). He complains that such objections don’t hold against “rarefied, deistic” gods (but then those are hardly the gods of the politically influential religions that were Dawkins’s target). Then he complains that Dawkins didn’t include the Euthyphro dilemma in a discussion of morality, suggesting that he must be “unaware” of it and saying that this “shows most clearly [Dawkins’s] limitations”.

Or perhaps Dawkins simply didn’t choose to include it? It’s amazing how many complaints against The God Delusion amount to: “it’s not the book that I would have written”, said by authors who don’t sell a hundredth of the books that Dawkins does! Yes, The God Delusion was a popular-level work aiming to persuade the populace, not a technical, academic treatise full of arcane philosophy. But there were already plenty of the latter, and as a simple empirical fact such works are not widely read, however good, and thus not that effective at persuading people.

Pigliucci continues:

The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural, by its own (human) nature, is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.

Well, I disagree, and so do many of the New Atheists. I’ve written about that in “Science can deal with the supernatural”, so won’t rehash the whole argument here. In brief, science can indeed deal with concepts that are vague and only partially defined; indeed a lot of scientific concepts are like that at the cutting edge.

To end the bashing of The God Delusion Pigliucci states that it is “historically badly informed polemic”, and laments:

Yet Dawkins and his followers present The God Delusion as a shining example of how science has dealt a fatal blow to the idea of gods.

Do they? Pigliucci gives no quote from Dawkins or his supporters saying that. Here is what Dawkins actually said on the topic in a recent interview:

Interviewer: People talk about “new atheism”. Is there something new about it?

Dawkins: No, there isn’t. Nothing that wasn’t in Bertrand Russell or probably Robert Ingersoll.

Note that neither of those notables was a scientist. With that many of Pigliucci’s strawmen simply vanish, though he continues:

Besides the obvious fact that one can genuinely be puzzled by what exactly qualifies [Victor] Stenger (or Dawkins) to authoritatively comment on the straightforward philosophical matters that make up most of their books, the basic problem with Stenger is precisely the same as Dawkins: he treats the “god hypothesis” as if it were formulated precisely and coherently enough to qualify as a scientific hypothesis, which it manifestly isn’t, for the reasons already explained.

This labeling of territory as “philosophical matters” that scientists are unqualified to talk about because they don’t “qualify as a scientific hypothesis” sounds like a turf-war defence. Pigliucci’s assertion of a clear demarkation between philosophy and science doesn’t convince me. If the “god hypothesis” is about the world around us, and if it has any implications for anything that we can observe (even at tenth hand), then it is a scientific hypothesis amenable to science.

I reject his idea that science applies only to hypotheses that are “formulated precisely and coherently enough”. Indeed that idea itself seems philosophically unsound, since the amount of precision and coherence of a hypothesis is a matter of degree, and thus there would be no obvious boundary where science’s methods of evidence and reason stop working, and that means they can be applied to the “god hypothesis”.

I’m also somewhat surprised by Pigliucci’s implication that, while science cannot deal with imprecise and unclear concepts, philosophy can. Pigliucci doesn’t justify this idea, and it seems at odds with the penchant for micro-analysis of language and concepts in a typical philosophy paper.

When Pigliucci turns to Sam Harris, and his book The Moral Landscape, he complains again about a populist style, and Harris’s deliberate avoidance of terms such as “metaethics” and “deontological”, saying that: “This is so mind-boggling that I had to reread it several times”. Pigliucci insists that:

The most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato [the Euthyphro dialogue].

Yet, if that is so convincing, why is that, 24 centuries later, so many of the populace are unconvinced? Is there something wrong with Harris trying again with a more popular style, avoiding terms such as “deontological”? Again, the root complaint seems to be that Dawkins and Harris try to talk to a wide audience and sell many more books, whereas Pigliucci implies one should only talk to fellow academics who know what “deontological” means.

Pigliucci also objects to the scientistic use of the word “science”:

If that is the case, if we get to 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 emphasis).

This would be a fair complaint, except that defenders of scientism make explicitly clear that that’s how they regard science. “Rational–empirical inquiry into facts” seems to me a very good definition of “science” as defenders of scientism understand the term. The fact that this idea might be novel to a reader isn’t a refutation of it, since the whole point is to argue against the traditional idea that, for example, philosophy and science are distinct and non-overlapping “magesteria”.

Again, Pigliucci argues for the demarkation between science and disciplines such as philosophy and mathematics:

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.

I for one disagree with that argument. We may well use axioms of Euclidean geometry and axioms of logic to arrive at the sum of the angles of a triangle, but where did those axioms come from, what validates them? What tells you that the logical reasoning used is valid? The answer — I assert — is empirical verification.

Pigliucci perhaps regards it as entirely coincidental that, if one were to use a ruler to draw a triangle on a piece of paper, and then measure the angles with a protractor, that the sum would concur with that deduced from mathematical axioms. I don’t see that as any coincidence at all and assert that axiomatic logic and mathematics derive from empirical observation of our universe. As a historical fact, the ideas in Euclid’s Elements derived from drawing on paper using rulers and compasses, and then deducing ideas about the patterns that resulted. Mathematics and logic are essentially distilled empiricism.

Having bashed the New Atheists in turn, Pigliucci addresses his root concern, the “scientism” that he regards as “a bad move for public atheism”. First, he claims that: “Scientism is philosophically unsound” because it lays claim to areas where science does not belong. However, Pigliucci merely asserts the idea of these different magesteria, rather than actually arguing for such divisions as anything more than arbitrary and convenient labels (just as a continent might have names for different geographical regions, though nothing much changes when one steps from one to the other).

But Pigliucci’s objection is to the language:

What I do object to is the tendency, found among many New Atheists, to expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals with “facts,” loosely conceived. […] One might as well define “philosophy” as the discipline that deals with thinking and then claim that everything we do, including of course science itself, properly belongs to philosophy. It would be a puerile and useless exercise, and yet it is not far from the attitude prevalent among the New Atheists.

Well yes, one could indeed call science a branch of philosophy. Indeed it was called “natural philosophy” long before Whewell invented the term “science”. Newton’s great book, perhaps the most lauded work in the history of the “hard” sciences, was entitled Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

But this isn’t just a “puerile and useless” exercise, there’s a real point: that knowledge is a seamless whole and that the same rules of logic and evidence apply throughout. Whether one calls the ensemble “science” or “philosophy” is mere semantics (though I prefer the former since, I assert, all knowledge is ultimately empirical), the point is that philosophers such as Pigliucci should not dismiss ideas coming from scientists merely on the grounds that science is not philosophy, and should not argue that scientists have nothing to say about “the god hypothesis” merely because that is instead the province of philosophy.

By all means, Professor Pigliucci, bring everything together under the umbrella term “philosophy” if you so wish. Having done so, now produce an argument for why the god hypothesis cannot be addressed by science like any other claim about the natural world, now actually argue for your demarkation lines.

Pigliucci charges the New Atheists with:

… anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor.

Biology and chemistry are different fields of intellectual endeavour, with their own styles and scope and different concerns, and yet there is a seamless transition between the two. We call it “biochemistry”, and basic ideas of evidence and reason do not change across that transition. Everyone accepts that these fields inform and enrich each other, and that they need to be entirely compatible with each other, meshing seamlessly. No scientist studying the biology of a cell would dismiss an insight deriving from chemistry on the grounds that that is “chemistry” and not “biology” — the way that Pigliucci wants to disqualify the application of science to what he regards as “straightforward philosophical matters” on which scientists have no qualifications to pronounce.

Pigliucci’s worry is this:

What the New Atheists seem to be aiming at is a replacement of philosophy by science, or at the very least a significant demotion of the former with respect to the latter.

In the sense of the assertion that all knowledge is empirical (and that, for example, mathematics derives from empirical reality), yes, everything is subsumed into “science”. But is it really a “demotion” to be a part of that ensemble? Biology is not “demoted” just because it can be considered a product of the outplaying of chemistry, and thus an outplaying of physics.

We still need the clear-thinking and question-asking that the best philosophers have always done, but seeing that as a part of science benefits both science and philosophy. Good philosophy is invaluable, but I suggest that much philosophy has been misguided precisely because it has not seen itself as an aspect of science, and thus has been too far divorced from a grounding in empirical reality. The field of theology can be held up as a ghastly example of what that leads to.

I don’t agree with all of Sam Harris’s take on morality, but I do agree that morals are the natural product of natural animals, and thus can only be understood from a scientific perspective. Way too much philosophical comment on morality gets nowhere because it is not rooted in that fact.

Good philosophers are invaluable, and will never be put out of a job by (other) scientists. Pigliucci rightly lauds many philosophical insights — his example of the Euthyphro dialogue is one of my favourites also. But the way forward for philosophy is to join the scientistic enterprise, as an esteemed and valuable partner.

Pigliucci says we atheists should:

seriously reconsider how [we] think of human knowledge in general, perhaps arching back to the classic concept of “scientia,” the Latin word from which “science” derives, but that has a broader connotation of (rationally arrived at) knowledge. Scientia includes science sensu stricto, philosophy, mathematics, and logic–that is, all the reliable sources of third-person knowledge that humanity has successfully experimented with so far.

Yes exactly, though we usually use the English word “science” rather than the Latin “scientia” from which it derives. We’re not that far apart! It would be helpful, though, if we talked sensibly about this, and tried to avoid the sneering — and that does apply also to New Atheists who see no value in any philosophy.

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41 thoughts on “Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of New Atheism and scientism

  1. colemining

    Wow! A truly impressive critique of Pigliucci’s discussion. I was thinking of picking it up, but honestly feel like I no longer need to since you have done such a fine job of outlining its weaknesses.
    I am at once intrigued and somewhat wearied by the back-and-forth within and about ‘new atheism’ and you clearly point out some of the reasons for this changeability.
    A fine article! Much appreciated!

    Reply
  2. gbjames

    I wonder if we’ll ever get an academic critique of New Atheism (aka “atheism”) that doesn’t resolve to jealousy and turf protection.

    Reply
  3. Anton Szautner

    Another fine and clearly expressed post!

    One line leaped out at me in particular:

    “If the “god hypothesis” is about the world around us, and if it has any implications for anything that we can observe (even at tenth hand), then it is a scientific hypothesis amenable to science.”

    This cannot be repeated often enough. If philosophy of any kind (and that presumably must include ‘theology’) asserts hypotheses on the nature of the way things are in the real world, then such hypotheses are amenable to scientific inquiry, if only to determine whether a necessary parsimony with other scientifically established facts (themselves established by test against the real world) justifies them. Either that, or philosophy hasn’t yet learned the value of arriving at truth through any test independent of logical reasoning, such as is purportedly employed, and that any assertion may be entertained as ‘true’ with little or no regard for relational comparison even between different hypotheses which may at least point the way towards building the kind of globally consistent conceptual structure one associates with an understanding identified as true. It makes one seriously wonder whether philosophy has actually arrived at any consensus on the nature of truth itself.

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  4. Tony Camilleri

    I really enjoyed this article. Alas I haven’t read the original essay.

    I would dispute two of your statements… Firstly , “morals are the natural product of natural animals, and thus can only be understood from a scientific perspective.” is something I don’t think is fully true.

    Certainly the development of morals – that is viewing morals from the outside, as a dispassionate observer – is an activity definitely belonging to science. I would probably expect more here from the sciences of archeology/history than biology. as so much of neuroscience is currently overstated in my opinion (and the opinion of my partner who has a doctorate in neuroscience). But in the future I’d say watch evolutionary psychology for more and more useful insights.

    This is quite different however from studying morals and ethics from the inside. There is no scientific reason for not eating dogs and monkeys but eating cows. Or not eating humans. Or not committing suicide when you break your word. And so on. Certainly science can aid these discussions – telling about consequences we might not easily predict. But Scientific enquiry can’t weigh those consequences. At least not as the western discipline has developed.

    I fit in to the camp that basically says that the wrongness of murder is not empirical data.

    This brings me to my second point of difference with you. “If the “god hypothesis” is about the world around us, and if it has any implications for anything that we can observe (even at tenth hand), then it is a scientific hypothesis amenable to science.”

    This is certainly true if a person is to recommend their deity as someone who aids in battle or heals or divines the future and so on. Even an intermittently effective god will be scientifically detected over time.

    But what about Gods which are not effective. Gods that are conceptual locations for worship. like love or democracy.These are concepts which people are prepared to believe in despite their immediate unlikelihood of triumph. Once again science can understand these Gods from the outside – as useful externalisations of aspirations with the benefits of creating movements that can transcend individual lives. However that’s not understanding them from the inside.

    Indeed Science is itself such a “god” and it can’t be expected to see itself with itself.

    Despite these points of difference I really enjoyed your article and I can’t stand the philosophical snobbery towards science that you write against. I think charges of scientism is often a cover for just shoddy pretentious and guarded ideas. Or maybe confused frustration at the corruption of science in the real world… but that’s a different matter altogether.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I fit in to the camp that basically says that the wrongness of murder is not empirical data.

      The “wrongness of murder” is an opinion. The existence of that opinion (in certain minds) is indeed an empirical fact. (The way to go wrong is to suppose that the “wrongness of murder” is an objective property of the universe, unrelated to human opinion, but that’s a false analysis.)

      But what about Gods which are not effective. Gods that are conceptual locations for worship. like love or democracy.

      The existence of “love” and “democracy” is an empirical fact, namely an empirical fact about humans and their interactions. The study of humans is a part of the “natural sciences” just like the study of any other part of the natural world.

      Defining “god” as meaning “democracy” is rather weird, but so defined it is a statement about the observable natural world and is thus accessible to science.

      Indeed Science is itself such a “god” and it can’t be expected to see itself with itself.

      Why not? (Leaving aside the even weirder definition of “god”.)

  5. Tony Camilleri

    oops should have placed inverted commas around your second quote… “If the “god hypothesis” is about the world around us, and if it has any implications for anything that we can observe (even at tenth hand), then it is a scientific hypothesis amenable to science.”

    Reply
  6. Danny Klopovic

    I think this critique is defective to the extent that it flip-flops between scientism (which appears to be a thinly veiled claim for empiricism) and the medieval notion of scientia which Pigliucci invokes.

    Under the rubric of scientia, one can and should encompass what Jerome Kagan describes as the three cultures, viz. that of the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities – following Charles Snow’s classic lecture on the two cultures.

    These three cultures are not reducible to each other – how would one speak of Shakespeare’s insights in an empirical sense for example or the silly claim that moral facts are empirical? This is the essential defect of scientism and the concomitant dismissal of the philosophical enterprise and the humanities. The last paragraph is particularly muddled in that it appears the author wishes to have their cake and eat it!

    Sorry Tony – I followed you from Facebook 😛

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Danny,

      the three cultures, viz. that of the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities

      But to me humans are just as much a part of the natural world as anything else, and thus the study of humans is a part of the “natural sciences”.

      how would one speak of Shakespeare’s insights in an empirical sense …

      I don’t see the problem. Shakespeare’s brain was a pattern of matter, his ideas are patterns of matter, and his ideas are about patterns of matter (other human brains). I don’t see any counter to the idea that our knowledge of all of this is empirical.

      for example or the silly claim that moral facts are empirical?

      What is silly about it? Give me an example of a “moral fact” that is not empirical.

      This is the essential defect of scientism …

      So far you have only asserted that there are defects, rather than shown that there are.

    2. Mark Wallace

      “I don’t see the problem. Shakespeare’s brain was a pattern of matter, his ideas are patterns of matter, and his ideas are about patterns of matter (other human brains).”

      I’m not sure I follow you here. The humanities should be about patterns of matter? So what do you think someone like, say, Harold Bloom is doing when he writes of Shakespeare? How would that form of humanities writing become part of a scientific culture? Or do you consider it totally worthless?

    3. Coel Post author

      The humanities should be about patterns of matter?

      Yes, since human beings are patterns of matter. And human societies are patterns of human interactions, and are thus also patterns of matter (patterns of patterns of patterns …).

      So what do you think someone like, say, Harold Bloom is doing when he writes of Shakespeare?

      He is generating complex patterns of matter (ideas) that are about complex patterns of matter (Shakespeare and his ideas and plays).

      How would that form of humanities writing become part of a scientific culture?

      Would you accept that studying and understanding baboons or chimpanzees is scientific? If so, would you accept that studying and understanding their social interactions is scentific? Suppose these species then develop to the point where they start writing about and studying their own ideas and social interactions. Would the studying and understanding of their ideas about their own social interactions be scientific? If yes to all that, then why isn’t studying human ideas about human social interactions scientific? It’s a branch of anthropology, the study and understanding of ourselves.

      Yes, this is very different in style to some other sciences (owing to the subject matter being very different), but I don’t see any sudden wall or divide whereby the study and understanding of other mammal species would be “scientific” but seeking to understand ourselves is not.

    4. Mark Wallace

      Thanks for the quick response. There seems very little room for arts and humanities in your worldview. I’m a scientific novice, but isn’t Dawkins’ stuff on memes, for example, a scientist’s admission that there aren’t wholly material explanations for all human culture. The meme is basically an abstract conjecture (I’m not sure it can be seen as really scientific) that accounts for the “something else” in human culture.

      I’m not arguing that human beings definitely aren’t patterns of matter, but that if we at this point in our knowledge tried to orient our understanding of human consciousness and social relations purely through the “patterns of matter” approach using the science available to us, we wouldn’t get very far or understand the world we live in very well, in practical social terms (or get much out of Shakespeare). There’s maybe some indefinite point in the future where we’ll know so much that the “patterns of matter” picture of humanity might work, but, till then, humanistic thought (one based less around definite knowledge than insight, sympathetic imagination, and open-mindedness – I’m improvising here, but “something else” than scientific knowledge, at any rate [though not opposing it, a la religion]) seems to me a necessity. It’s one thing to theoretically posit that humans are “patterns of matter”, but surely it’s another to actually wholly proceed in all facets of life on that basis.

    5. Coel Post author

      There seems very little room for arts and humanities in your worldview.

      Not at all, I see the understanding of ourselves to be of high interest and importance of us. I just don’t see us as divorced from the (rest of the) natural world, and don’t see any big divides between understanding ourselves and understanding the (rest of the) natural world.

      isn’t Dawkins’ stuff on memes, for example, a scientist’s admission that there aren’t wholly material explanations for all human culture.

      I don’t see anything non-material about memes. “Memes” and other ideas are patterns of material. All of the things that materialist science studies are also patterns of material (atoms are patterns of fundamental particles; molecules are patterns of atoms, etc).

      if we at this point in our knowledge tried to orient our understanding of human consciousness and social relations purely through the “patterns of matter” approach using the science available to us, we wouldn’t get very far …

      We should address these things on all levels. There is no inconsistency between seeing something as a pattern of matter, and at the same time looking for a high-level systems understanding of it. For example, hurricanes are patterns of air molecules, but one treats them at a higher level when predicting weather.

      There again, the high-level understanding (of how a hurricane acts as an ensemble, how a cow acts as an ensemble, how a human or a galaxy or a Ford truck acts as an ensemble) is just as “scientific” as the consideration of the component parts. Nothing in science says that you’re only allowed to consider the low-level description of a system.

    6. Mark Wallace

      It still seems to me that you’re effectively totally dismissing the humanities, even while expressly allowing them. Your actual definition and comparison with weather systems indicate a narrowly scientistic approach. I’d be interested to know what writers in the humanities you consider to fit into your “patterns of matter”/”high-level systems” approach.

    7. Coel Post author

      I don’t mean to dismiss the humanities — to me they are an important part of how we understand ourselves.

      My stance is not to see knowledge as compartmentalised, but to see humans as natural products of a natural universe.

      And both low-level and high-level approaches to understanding humans are important — just as they are with hurricanes, and oak trees, and galaxies: we study both the component parts and the interactions of those parts, and we study the behaviour of the ensemble.

      For humans, biochemists study the nuts and bolts; evolutionary biologists study the process that produced humans; and writers in the humanities take a high-level approach and seek to understand the social interactions of humans.

  7. Tony C.

    As you say….”The “wrongness of murder” is an opinion. The existence of that opinion (in certain minds) is indeed an empirical fact. (The way to go wrong is to suppose that the “wrongness of murder” is an objective property of the universe, unrelated to human opinion, but that’s a false analysis.)”

    That’s all well and good as I said for studying morality from the outside. However the business of morality or ethics is not to uncover how many minds hold certain moral opinions or why. Those are completely scientific questions but perhaps better put under the topic of sociology. Well and good.

    The primary business of morality and ethics is to guide our own decisions regarding actions – in regard to killing for example, to impact on our decision whether or not to kill someone. That is what I mean from studying morality the inside. Essentially – playing the game of life rather than just looking at the box.

    To use your word, opinion, the primary business of morality is to form our own opinion regarding murder/killing – not simply to note that it is an opinion in other “minds”.

    Now personally my view about the subjective/objective split is that nothing is properly belonging to either category. Reality occurs in the space in which the subjective mediates with the objective – think what UP is for example. But it should be obvious that the objective reality of the rightness or wrongness of my own opinion is ,if not a nonsense proposition then certainly opening us up to paradox – I wont defend it. But it doesn’t matter. Its a poor arguement to say that science only deals with objective realities (at least as we can observe them) including the objective reality of others opinions therefore because absolute morality is not an objective reality but a subjective opinion that not only is this beyond science but that it doesn’t “exist”. It exists subjectively and that existence is the actual business of ethics.

    All ethics deals with fantasies and fictions. Fantasies and fictions such as; a moral equality amongst people, or a right to self-determination, of the value of standing illusionless before reality. We (I think ) agree that these are not scienitific matters except when viewed from the outside. We disagree as to whether they matter enough to be called real.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      the primary business of morality is to form our own opinion regarding murder/killing – not simply to note that it is an opinion in other “minds”.

      Yes, agreed.

      Its a poor argument to say that … because absolute morality is not an objective reality but a subjective opinion that not only is this beyond science but that it doesn’t “exist”. It exists subjectively and that existence is the actual business of ethics.

      I agree. I would not put “subjective opinions” about morality outside of science. Indeed I regard the understanding of ourselves (and our subjective opinions) to be a proper part of science (anthropology/psychology).

      Yes, we all have to form opinions about morals. The fallacy here is supposing that there is something (science or something else) that can do this for you by telling you what opinion you “should” hold. It is hankering after that illusory standard that causes confusion about morals. Any properly understood aspect of morals can be addressed by science, as I argued more fully in “Science can answer morality questions”.

      We (I think ) agree that these are not scienitific matters except when viewed from the outside.

      I would phrase it thus: nothing (not science, not anything else) can tell us what morals we “should” adopt, because that whole concept is an incoherent illusion. Our morals are our opinions and feelings, there is no foundation to them other than that. But all aspects of morality — properly understood — are the proper domain of science.

      This “viewed from the inside” seems to be code for “I want something to form my opinion for me by telling me what morals I should adopt”. Once we realise that that is a red-herring the whole domain of morality becomes much clearer.

  8. Tony Camilleri

    “The fallacy here is supposing that there is something (science or something else) that can do this for you by telling you what opinion you “should” hold.”

    I’m intrigued. Given we both agree that a) making a decision about whether to kill is the primary work of morality/ethics, and you say that b) nothing (science or anything else) can tell us what we should do in this situation then it seems to me you might be occupying one of three positions…

    1. The closed world view of biological/social determinism; the notion of a moral decision is not genuine, I will kill or not kill anyway based on causal factors so lets skip this discussion as unnecessary. (Contradicts a) but solves the dillemma)

    2. Existential aloneness or free choice. The correct answer to “should I kill” from anyone else (or even ourself?) is silence. We all must face these decisions alone and no-one can help anyone else.

    3. Pure pragmatism based on something that seems self-evident like a pleasure principle. If I kill someone I will go to jail and that won’t be fun.

    I find all these positions to be unsatisfactory however I’m not sure I can argue against them. Position 2 is a very powerful one. In fact I don’t even think we have to agree here. 3. is probably the most ick to me. Seems like hollowing out one self of all that is interesting.

    I would say however when you call something “a red herring” it implies a purpose it distracts from. And I think this is where you have gone wrong. You seem to have begun with questions of what we can know (which you restrict to empirical data and reasoning from such data) and somehow translated this to what is important. That seems odd. What is important, such as what you think of killing me, is certainly not dependant on methods of enquiry – not to me. Not subjectively I would hope to you. But if it doesn’t interest you that shouldn’t get turned into some general claim of non-existence.

    Subjective importance is in fact the only importance there is in my opinion. There is no absolute importance for anything to be measured against. So no absolute “red herrings” either only red herrings on your strange quest.

    I certainly agree there is a gap between how we structure knowledge and the elements of “should” questions. So too did Wittgenstein – the father of falsifiability and the science model I think you use. However Wittgenstein, in determining the limits of logic, did not mean to say that what lay beyond those limits “did not exist” or was unimportant. That was a poor misreading of his ideas by the Logical positivists.

    I feel the gap can be filled by empathy – which can be scientifically observed from the outside – but can be a font of wisdom and insight to inform our decisions (and our science) when embraced as a way of seeing. But that is a long discussion…..

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      None of those three!

      In asserting that: “nothing (science or anything else) can tell us what we *should* do in this situation”, I am asserting that the phrase “you should do X”, in the abstract quite literally has no meaning. The only meaning of an abstract “you should do X” is something like: “this action gets the highest ranking on the Absolute Shouldness Scale”. But, there is no Absolute Shouldness Scale, no *objective* morality. Hankering after that is the red-herring, and thus looking for something to tell you what you “should” do is futile.

      A moral “should” only has meaning with reference to the opinion of a person. That’s what morals are, they are opinions. You need to refer to the person doing the opining. Thus: “John thinks you should do X” or “most people think you should do X” are meaningful. Also, Peter telling you “you should do X” is meaningful if interpreted as “Paul thinks you should do X”.

      Thus, people can offer you their opinions, but nothing (science or otherwise) can tell you what you “should” do, if by that you mean something that is more than the speakers opinion.

      Of course science can tell you about consequences of actions. “If you do X then Y will result.” And that can inform your opinion and may lead you to revise your opinion. And people can discuss and seek to persuade each other, and this may cause you to alter your opinion. You might also self-reflect and change your opinion. Also, science might tell you *why* you have a particular opinion (and knowing that might also influence that opinion). But still, in the end, a moral judgment is your opinion or the opinion of some other human. Seeking anything other than that is the red-herring (a very powerful and distracting red-herring, given how much philosophizing has gone into that search).

      By the way, I’m not arguing that these subjective opinions are unimportant, indeed human subjective feelings are the only thing that is important to us (anything else is only important owing to its effect on our subjective feelings).

  9. Richard Wein

    Hi.

    Coel: “Pigliucci’s assertion of a clear demarkation between philosophy and science doesn’t convince me.”

    I think Pigliucci has become a bit less demarcationist over recent years, usually now (as here) including a denial that there is a sharp line of demarcation, and referring to Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances. However, I don’t think he understands Wittgenstein very deeply, or appreciates the degree and significance of the fuzziness of such distinctions. He seems to do little more than pay lip-service to these ideas, and then continue to write as if there were some essential difference between science and philosophy.

    One peculiarity of the article is that, after recognising that the New Atheists’ arguments against God are much the same as the old ones, Pigliucci goes on to accuse NAs of scientism in making science-based arguments against God. But, if the arguments are essentially unchanged, this is only a matter of how NAs describe their arguments, and the dispute should be seen as primarily a linguistic one, over the correct usage of the word “science”.

    More generally, though, there is a substantive, epistemological issue, over what kind of thinking is appropriate to the discussion of certain questions. The drawing of over-essentialist demarcation lines can discourage people from thinking in sufficiently science-informed ways. For example, I think many theists use an essentialist demarcation (such as NOMA) as an excuse for failing to engage in sufficiently science-informed scrutiny of their religious beliefs. I think such essentialism has also played a part in the traditional tendency of philosophers to rely too much on a priori ways of knowing, and an overly-mathematical model of philosophy, leading to too much emphasis on deductive argument from intuitively obvious premises, rather than inference to the best explanation. I see this particularly in much of Massimo’s own philosophy, where he even has a tendency to refer to such intuitive beliefs as “axioms”.

    I position myself somewhere between NAs and critics like Pigliucci. I think NAs are right to emphasise the continuity of science with broader rational inference. On the other hand, I don’t think the best way to make this point is to broaden the meaning of “science” to refer to all rational inference (or even all empirical inference). Fuzzy distinctions are a normal, ubiquitous and essential feature of natural language, and we shouldn’t try to define them out of existence. In fact no one wants to stop using “science” in the traditional sense. I can’t see NAs wanting to admit historians into the NAS, or have history books filed under “Science” in libraries. To abandon the traditional sense of “science” would be to discard a useful word. But using the new sense in addition to the old one is liable to cause confusion, especially if they’re used carelessly or even equivocally, which is unfortunately the case with Harris. (I think Harris is rather oblivious to the risks of conflating different senses of ambiguous terms. In my view the same book commits fallacies of equivocation over words like “good” and “value”. But that’s another subject.) I have a bit more sympathy with the approach sometimes taken by Jerry Coyne, distinguishing the two senses by calling them “science (narrow sense)” and “science (broad sense)”.

    It can help if we see the scientific-ness of thinking as a matter of degree. Some questions require a more scientific approach than others. On the whole, when we model very complex systems at a high level of abstraction, we must do so in a more fuzzy and imprecise way. That’s why the human and social “sciences” tend to be less amenable to scientific methods and “softer”. If we want the word “scientism” to be useful, I would take it to mean a tendency to think in an overly scientific way about some subjects. There’s a certain amount of that about, but I think the opposite tendency (not thinking in a sufficiently scientific way) is more of a problem. I think we should pay more attention to the way people actually think about a question, and less to the statements they make about whether that question is “scientific”. Pigliucci concentrates too much on these rather vague statements, mistaking relatively superficial matters of language for substantive matters. Language is an interesting subject in its own right (to me at least), but even misguided language only has substantive significance if people are being misled by it. That includes misleading themselves, as happens when people unwittingly commit fallacies of equivocation.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I agree with you that “science” is perhaps not the best word for the consilience of knowledge (and “scientism” is certainly not the best word for that conscilience idea in opposition to NOMA).

  10. Pingback: In defense of Pigliucci | aRemonstrant'sRamblings

  11. Phil

    Coel,

    I hope this is an appropriate place to make this request.

    I would like to see you address what I see to be the foundation of science, a “more is better” relationship with knowledge.

    I would argue that while a “more is better” relationship with knowledge was valid for a very long time, in an era when knowledge development is accelerating rapidly it’s time to review this fundamental premise.

    We limit the powers available to children due to their immaturity. But when it comes to adults, we seem to assume that we can successfully manage any amount of power that new knowledge may bring us. Is that assumption valid?

    It seems remarkably easy to argue that the human race is not mature enough to handle unlimited power, and thus a “more is better” relationship with knowledge requires a more careful inspection.

    If this interests you, I’d enjoy reading an article from you on this topic.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      Thanks for your request, I’ll have a think about an article along those lines (though I’m not the most productive blogger in terms of frequency, and I can currently think of about twenty posts that I might get round to writing!).

      Is too much knowledge dangerous? In one sense, yes. We have the technological capability nowadays to alter the Earth’s climate, and we are indeed doing that by pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Knowing how to make nuclear weapons is of course also dangerous.

  12. Phil

    Thanks Coel, I’ll be patient.

    Here’s a quick example to illustrate my interest.

    For endless centuries we very reasonably had a “more is better” relationship with food, given that humans typically lived on the edge of starvation.

    In the modern era, our success at developing food resources has led to a new problem, obesity. At least in the developed countries, the ancient “more is better” relationship with food is no longer automatically valid. That ancient relationship now requires inspection, review, challenge.

    I propose this is where we are with knowledge as well.

    I hope to find scientists, philosophers, academics etc who are addressing the “more is better” relationship with knowledge issue. Should you be able to link us to such thinker/writers, I would be grateful for such a useful service. I know you are more well read in these areas than I am.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. GBJames

      Are you advocating a “less is better” strategy? Maybe “progress through ignorance”? “Let’s dumb our way out of our problems”?

      Or are you advocating for a “Let’s pray ourselves a solution” strategy?

  13. Phil

    GBJames, I’m not a theist, if that is your question.

    If human maturity could be advanced in a substantial manner, I can then support giving us new powers. The problem is not knowledge, but the relationship between maturity and knowledge/power.

    I’m making the very same calculation we routinely make in regards to children, and applying it also to we adults, who often act in a quite child-like manner.

    Reply
    1. GBJames

      The analogy is bad. In a family, kids have parents who perform in the adult role. Here in larger society there are no “adults”, if you are going to describe us all as “children”. Are you going to be the “adult” who determines which knowledge/power is available to the rest of us? Or are you willing to nominate me to that position? No thanks, either way.

      There seems to me to be an inherent nativity in asserting that that “knowing less” is possible, let alone desirable. The only places that I know of where people are encouraged to turn off their brains is in the domain of religion. We have no alternative to learning more other than to somehow enforce ignorance through bad education and totalitarian thought-control. That’s the domain of faith. Leave it to the North Koreans.

  14. Phil

    You said…

    “Here in larger society there are no “adults.”

    My point exactly.

    How about this? I suggest we develop more knowledge about human maturity, and until we make significant progress there, less about technology.

    You can call that religion if you wish, but I call it simple common sense.

    Reply
    1. GBJames

      You are clearly positioning yourself as the “adult”, wise enough to tell us all to stop learning about things except for “knowledge about human maturity”, whatever that is. It is a profoundly theocratic way of thinking. No thanks.

    1. GBJames

      No. Suggesting that someone should enforce a regime of anti-knowledge is.

      And why do you set to define what the central issue of our time is? I certainly don’t agree that it is.

  15. Phil

    You said…

    “No. Suggesting that someone should enforce a regime of anti-knowledge is. ”

    Could you please quote where I suggested that? Thank you.

    Reply
    1. GBJames

      ‘I hope to find scientists, philosophers, academics etc who are addressing the “more is better” relationship with knowledge issue.’

      Now, I may be reading something you don’t intend, but I have a difficult time interpreting this suggestion in a way other than “maybe less knowledge is better”. And if one thinks that “less knowledge is better”, there is only one way I can conceive of to achieve that goal, aside from removing humanity completely from the planet. So let me put it to you this way, in case I’ve got you wrong:

      * Do you think think it should be a goal to prevent accumulating knowledge?
      * If so, are your suggested limits only on some domains? Which ones?
      * How do you propose to enforce whatever restrictions you are advocating?

      If I have got you all wrong, please correct my misunderstanding.

  16. Phil

    Knowledge is not the problem, but the relationship between knowledge/power and judgment/maturity.

    What’s happening is that the nature of that relationship is changing, thanks to exploding knowledge development. We are becoming more powerful far faster than we are becoming more mature.

    I’m asking readers to plot that trend line in to the future, and face the reality of where it is taking us.

    It’s possible we could address the growing imbalance between power and maturity by finding some means of dramatically accelerating our maturity. This is a form of knowledge that would be useful indeed.

    If that proves not to be possible, then yes, the only other option is to limit the growth of knowledge, or at least target it more closely to the serious challenges that knowledge development has already presented us with. Nuclear weapons would be a good place to begin given that they appear to be the most sweeping and immediate threat.

    In regards to your questions, what is your goal in presenting them?

    Is your goal to create a list of obstacles so we can then focus on overcoming them? If yes, it is that very process I hope to inspire with my thoughts.

    Or is it your goal to present a list of obstacles so impressive that we will sweep this issue off the table and get back to the comfy cozy status quo which is leading by the hand towards disaster? I ask, because in every conversation I’ve had on this subject to date, that has been the goal of all challengers, to protect the status quo.

    If your goal is to try to solve the problems you raise, you can demonstrate that by beginning the process of trying to solve them yourself.

    If your goal is to protect the status quo concept of knowledge driven “progress” then I’ve learned from experience that attempting to answer your questions will accomplish nothing for either of us.

    I don’t have all the answers my friend. I have only the question. But I feel that is a modest contribution, because I don’t see it being asked elsewhere.

    Reply
  17. GBJames

    My goal should be self evident. It is to get you to clarify your view if I’ve misunderstood them. I’ve drawn what I think are the logical and necessary conclusions from your comments and you’ve responded with “please quote where I suggested that”, implying that I had somehow missed your point.

    It seems that I have not missed your point. My questions to you stand as an argument that the anti-knowledge position (er… “knowledge/power” position) is not only unrealistic but abhorrent. You are not just “asking the question” you are implying an answer, despite your assertion to the contrary.

    Reply

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