Science is a product of science!

The latest issue of Free Enquiry magazine contains several articles about philosophy and science, including an article by Susan Haack, a philosopher of science who “defends scientific inquiry from the moderate viewpoint”, rejecting cynical views that dismiss science as a mere social construction, but also rejecting “scientism”.

While Susan Haack talks quite a bit of sense about science, she promotes a view that is common among philosophers of science but which I see as fundamentally wrong. That is the idea that science and the scientific method depend on philosophical principles that cannot be justified by science, but instead need to be justified by philosophy.

In the Free Enquiry piece she writes:

… It isn’t true that science can explain everything. The achievements of science certainly deserve our respect and admiration. But, like all human enterprises science is fallible and incomplete, and there are limits to the scope of even the most advanced and sophisticated future science imaginable.

We should distinguish between two claims here. First, can science “explain everything”? Probably not, there are many things that humans can never know, and our understanding will always be limited and fallible. The second claim, though, is that where science is limited in scope, other “ways of knowing”, such as philosophy, can arrive at reliable knowledge. It is this second claim, not the first, that scientism denies.

(It’s also worth pointing out that advocates of scientism intend a broad definition of science that includes rational analysis as much as empirical data, and thus encompasses modes of enquiry that others might regard as outside science.)

Haack continues:

Evolutionary psychology, for example, might tell us a good deal about the origin of the moral sentiments or the survival value of altruism; but it couldn’t tell us whether or, if so, why these sentiments, or this disposition to help others, could constitute the basis of ethics. Cognitive science might tell us a good deal about people’s tendency to notice and remember positive evidence and to overlook or forget the negative; but it couldn’t tell us what makes evidence positive or negative, or what makes it stronger, what weaker. Neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief or gives up an old one; but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves, or what makes a belief the belief that 7+5=12 rather than the belief that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon, or what evidence warrants a change of belief.

I would say that all of the above questions are properly within the scope of science. Haack gives no argument for why they aren’t. But the focus of this post is a more general point about science itself:

More generally, none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world, or how the world must be, and how we must be, if science is to be even possible.

This is the claim that science rests on the foundations of philosophy. Haack makes this more explicit:

And the rising tide of scientistic philosophy not only threatens to leave the very science to which it appeals adrift with no rational anchoring; it also spells shipwreck for philosophy itself.

Thus, Haack claims, science is rationally anchored in, and justified by, philosophy, without which it is “adrift”. This account is popular among philosophers of science.

I consider it to be fundamentally wrong. Scientists don’t look to philosophers to justify their subject, they consider that science is justified because it works. And by “works” we mean that it leads to predictions of eclipses that come true, it leads to medicines that can cure people, it leads to accounts of reality that demonstrably contain understanding of the world. This is best demonstrated by technology. Computers work, iPhones work, aircraft fly, MRI scanners work.

Science can use its most esoteric theories to predict the existence of gravitational waves emitted by colliding neutron stars or black holes — both exotic concepts far beyond the world of everyday experience — and then build hugely complex machines of impressive technological mastery to detect such waves, and then use them to observe exactly what was predicted, complete with the characteristic in-spiral pattern.

Further the methods of science are not the product of philosophy but are themselves the product of science. By that, I mean that the methods of science are the product of experimentation, trying out different approaches and seeing what works best.

Science doesn’t reject divining tea leaves, for example, owing to instructions from philosophers, it rejects divining tea leaves because it doesn’t work. The realisation of human biases, and of the placebo effect, and the consequent move to double blinding in medical trials was again not the result of philosophical analysis, but was arrived at by assessing evidence. For the most part scientists are unaware of much of philosophy, and usually don’t look to it for guidance as to how to proceed.

But, the philosopher might reply, science rests on many assumptions about how the world works and about the nature of evidence, and it is philosophers who examine those assumptions. To an extent that is true, philosophers do indeed examine and write about such assumptions; but the justification for adopting them comes, not from philosophy, but again from the fact that science works.

If science necessarily adopts assumptions A, B and C, and then science built on such assumptions works in the real world (“works” in the above sense), then that demonstrates that assumptions A, B and C are real-world true. In other words, A, B and C are no longer assumptions but have now been tested and validated by the fact that adopting them works.

(If one wants to retort that, while science assumes A, B and C, it doesn’t actually test them because it could instead adopt P, Q and R, without any resulting change to observations, then this would mean that A, B and C were not necessary assumptions, and thus that they are not key underpinnings of science.)

Thus Haack’s claim that, without philosophy, science would be “adrift with no rational anchoring” is misconceived. Science is not founded on “rational anchoring”, that is, reasoning from key axioms that can be known a priori (and nor is it founded on axioms that can only be taken on faith). Indeed, it can’t be, because philosophy has no way of arriving at a priori knowledge.

Instead, science is an iteration between a whole web of ideas and models, and the comparison of that web of ideas to the real world that we experience empirically through our senses. Science is not anchored in philosophy, it is instead anchored in the empirical world and justified by the fact that it works; that is, by the fact that the ensemble web explains the real world, enables us to make good predictions about the real world, and enables us to develop technology that works.

To Susan Haack’s suggestion that: “none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world”, the reply is that it demonstrably works, and that since it does, that shows that it has a legitimate claim on knowledge (since that’s what “knowledge of the world” ultimately means).

This reply is commonly given by scientists, and indeed by some philosophers of science. The reply that “it works” is a scientific reply, since the maxim of adopting what works (in terms of leading to explanatory and predictive power) is the underlying ethos of science. Adopt what works; test it; adapt it to make it work better; test it again.

And it is a good thing that science is not anchored in philosophy, since philosophy itself has no way of justifying its tenets. Contra Haack, the problem would be if science did depend on philosophy, rather than justifying itself by a boot-strap iteration with empirical reality. Because we’d then have no way of establishing whether it had any more validity than other “ways of knowing”.

One can see why some philosophers of science are fond of the idea that philosophy provides the underpinning and intellectual anchoring of science. This would give them a raison d’etre and allow them to claim some of the glory from the overwhelming success of science.

Philosophy of science is of course, when done well, a valuable commentary about science. I certainly don’t want to dismiss all of philosophy of science (indeed, this post could itself be regarded as philosophy of science). Some commentary by the best philosophers is very insightful. But philosophy is not necessary to science, since on the whole scientists are better than philosophers at deducing which methods do and do not work in finding out about the real world; after all they have by far the best track record of so doing.

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42 thoughts on “Science is a product of science!

  1. Neil Rickert

    Thanks for the link to Haack’s article. I may think about responding to it on my own blog.

    Quoting some of Haack (from your post):

    Cognitive science might tell us a good deal about people’s tendency to notice and remember positive evidence and to overlook or forget the negative; but it couldn’t tell us what makes evidence positive or negative, or what makes it stronger, what weaker.

    and

    Neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief or gives up an old one; but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves, or what makes a belief the belief that 7+5=12 rather than the belief that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon, or what evidence warrants a change of belief.

    Philosophy cannot answer those questions either. And, as you point out, science does at least give some pragmatic answers.

    Haack is right, that those are basic philosophy questions. The inability of philosophy to answer basic philosophical questions — that is why philosophy is failing.

    Reply
  2. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    Thanks for this coherent response to Susan Haack’s piece. Right, science is not dependent on philosophical premises. Ideally, philosophical premises relevant to science are justified by science, where “science” is understood as the “web of ideas” that best makes sense of the world. Further, science is the best methodology we have for obtaining ‘truth’ about the world where ‘truth’ is the normal provisional kind in science. (W.V. Quine’s naturalism is as close as I know of to a philosophical understanding of science.)

    I’d like to touch on what is left for philosophy beyond commentary on science.

    Firmly in the domain of philosophy, and beyond the domain of science, are answers to questions about what our ultimate goals ‘ought’ to be and, hence, full answers to questions such as “How should I live?” and “What is good?”

    Of course, philosophy is arguably as unable as science to come to final positive answers to these questions. To the extent that they are dependent on ultimate goals, answers to “How should I live?” and “What is good?” may forever come down to personal preference.

    The value I see for philosophy regarding these questions is laying out the implications for the various options for what our ultimate goals ought to be. That careful work could enable people to make better considered choices as to what they prefer, perhaps what they think will be more likely to meet their needs and preferences in the long term. The fact that there is no fact of the matter about these ultimate goals does not prevent this philosophical effort from being worthwhile.

    There remains the possibility of a wonderful philosophical renaissance. But that renaissance requires philosophers to recognize their work can be divided into two domains: one based on the provisional ‘truth’ of science and the other based on speculations such as what our ultimate goals ought to be. I don’t see that recognition happening anytime soon.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      To the extent that they are dependent on ultimate goals, answers to “How should I live?” and “What is good?” may forever come down to personal preference.

      That’s what I’d go for, yes.

      … the other based on speculations such as what our ultimate goals ought to be.

      I don’t think there’s any such thing as what our ultimate goals “ought to be”. If oughts are all instrumental, then they derive from our ultimate goals.

    2. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      We both agree there is no “such thing as what our ultimate goals ‘ought to be’. ” However, philosophers can still quite usefully speculate about the implications of different alternatives. These discussions enable people to come to more considered conclusions about what ultimate goals they prefer. Carefully choosing a preferred ultimate goal to consistently pursue should be more effective in meeting our needs and preferences than making decisions on an ad hoc basis in the heat of the moment.

    3. Coel Post author

      I can agree with all of that. However, I’d say that understanding the implications and consequences of different alternatives is as much “science” as “philosophy”. For example, understanding the consequences of implementing, say, communism versus free-market individualism is way too complex to deduce by armchair analysis, and really requires a large measure of suck-it-and-see experimentation. Philosophers are welcome to help with such questions, but I wouldn’t grant them ownership of the territory.

  3. Anton Szautner

    I, for one, am glad that science keeps its attention trained on the world outside of scientist’s heads (viz., on the object under study), rather than the abstract theorems and principles inside philosopher’s heads (to put it bluntly, the study of study). One would think even the most hardened philosophers of science would admit the former doesn’t require the latter to legitimize itself as a ‘way of knowing’ about the subject under investigation. But then, it isn’t clear whether some philosophers of science understand distraction well enough to recognize it, let alone avoid it. There must be a proper logistical study of distraction that has managed to avoid the peril, somewhere, or my name is Hegel.

    Reply
  4. Patrice Ayme

    Very interesting Coel! This sort of “philosophy” is a preliminary to the toleration of the ills of the established order.
    Saying one knows that science has limits is saying one knows one is god.
    “… like all human enterprises science is fallible and incomplete, and there are limits to the scope of even the most advanced and sophisticated future science imaginable.”
    First science is not just an “enterprise”. Science is a method, and a body of knowledge. An enterprise” is “something apprehended”.
    And science is not just A body of knowledge. It’s THE body of knowledge so certain one can make machines, and strategies out of it, or provide explanations which work with very high, relative to what predictions we could make before, or near 100% certainty.
    There is no contradiction between philosophy and science. They are two complementary and actually overlapping methods. One does not go without the other. Basically philosophy applies common sense to one off experiments, and situation where it’s hard to find the foundations, and one is reduced to more or less educated guesses. All and any science blossoms from such more or less educated guesses, or even serendipity. All and any philosophy determines some certainties which will lead to science, be it only the science of cooking or bringing up children.

    Human beings are thinking (Quantum) machines. They have to use the philosophical method (guesses), and they have to use the scientific method (repeatable, and, or, theoritizable situations). Human beings have evolved to do both well.

    Haacks: “Evolutionary psychology, for example, might tell us a good deal about the origin of the moral sentiments or the survival value of altruism; but it couldn’t tell us whether or, if so, why these sentiments, or this disposition to help others, could constitute the basis of ethics.“

    Except if it turns out that the mere existence of ethics has to do with making life possible. And that is completely obvious. Without some basic ethics well-known by all, human life is simply impossible. Human beings are not simple mussels who can drift with the current when young. Even Adolf Hitler, as an infant was somewhat ethically and lovingly, taken care of, or Hitler would not have existed.

    Haack: “Neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief or gives up an old one; but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves, or what makes a belief the belief that 7+5=12…”

    Maybe Haack should learn enough mathematics to know that 7 + 5 = 12 can be demonstrated.

    Haack: “More generally, none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world, or how the world must be, and how we must be, if science is to be even possible.”
    Once established, complete with its domain of validity, a science is knowledge of the world, because that’s how it’s established. As knowledge. For example, classical optics, within its domain is certain (it’s not contradicted by nonlinear Quantum optics, which is NOT within the domain of classical optics).

    The world is. Human beings are part of it. To pontificate “how the world must be” is to take oneself for God. That one must be God, to make philosophy. Even classical religions don’t sink that low in the abyss of delusional self-aggrandizement.

    Voltaire famously thanked Rousseau for making all of us stupid. I think one should thank many a “philosopher” to make all of us so stupid, that we are ready to live in a world where Jihadism is revered, the wealthiest evading taxes tolerated, nuclear weapons are at the ready, and the biosphere is cooking. The Trump administration declared a few days ago that a temperature rise of 4.7 Celsius is possible by 2100. This is what serious people should be thinking of. They shouldn’t be thinking why it is that only “Philosophers In Name Only” must make the world possible. The world is, thus must be. We have evolved to know, and modify it. At least those of us who are not paid to preach ignorance.

    Reply
  5. Phil

    Very interesting, thanks Coel. A few thoughts…

    How shall we define whether “science works”? I would define it by the degree to which a science driven civilization prospers. I would gently remind readers that, thanks to science, our civilization is now in every moment only about 45 minutes away from total destruction at the push of a button. The jury is very much out on how the experiment called science that’s been underway for the last 500 years or so is going to turn out.

    I’ve just spent the entire last week on a science forum talking with scientists about this very issue, and though the sample is admittedly very small, I can report that this sample group of scientists truly has no clue regarding how their enterprise depends entirely on the success of just one thing, the successful management of nuclear weapons. If we fail at that one thing, all of the projects all of you are working on are a complete waste of time. Thus, if you’re not working on nuclear weapons issues, you are largely irrelevant.

    It gets worse. Few scientists seem to be able to recognize that the knowledge explosion is an accelerating assembly line which is going to produce more and more existential scale powers like nuclear weapons at ever faster rates, and that the future of science depends entirely on us being able to successfully manage each and every such power, every single day forever. A single failure a single time with a single existential scale technology is all it’s takes to bring science to an end. And yet, scientists keep poring as much fuel on the knowledge explosion as they possibly can, a very clear sign of the limits of their reasoning ability.

    All for now, another angle tomorrow perhaps. Wish this was a forum instead of a blog.

    Reply
    1. vampyricon

      ‘How shall we define whether “science works”? I would define it by the degree to which a science driven civilization prospers.’
      Though I’m not Coel, I’d say this is the problem. Whether science works isn’t defined by the civilization using it. It’s defined by whether it describes and explains reality accurately. I’m not sure if it’s you, but I’ve seen someone here promoting the view that “Nukes, therefore knowledge is bad”, which is simply untrue. I could say “Vaccines, therefore knowledge is good” using the exact same logic, which makes this line of reasoning unconvincing.

    2. Phil

      vampyricon writes, “Whether science works isn’t defined by the civilization using it. It’s defined by whether it describes and explains reality accurately.”

      First, for the record, I didn’t say that science is defined by the civilization using it. What I did say is that science works to the degree it accomplishes the goal of enhancing civilization.

      Scientists and the larger culture more generally tend to be infected with the blind assumption that “explains reality accurately” and “enhances civilization” are automatically the same thing. This is the simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge I’ve been attempting to direct reader’s attention to.

      If we wish to limit the definition of “science works” to “explains reality accurately” I’ve already agreed science and scientists are good at this operation. I’m agreeable to this limited definition if scientists will stick to developing knowledge, surrender their cultural authority on larger issues, and stop commenting on philosophy and religion and other subjects beyond their ability which do focus on the larger context in which science exists.

      If scientists wish to define themselves as being merely knowledge mechanics, ok, so stick to that.

  6. Phil

    Coel writes…

    “The second claim, though, is that where science is limited in scope, other “ways of knowing”, such as philosophy, can arrive at reliable knowledge. It is this second claim, not the first, that scientism denies. ”

    No knowledge is truly reliable because it is all constrained by the properties of the electro-chemical information medium all knowledge is made of, thought. As example, a building made of wood is only as strong as the properties of wood allow it to be.

    Thought operates by dividing the single unified reality in to conceptual parts. Nouns are the easiest example of this. This built-in division process gives us great power, at the price of introducing profound distortion in to our experience of reality. It makes us genius, and while also making us insane. Example, we are brilliant enough to create nuclear weapons, and mad enough to actually do so.

    Because of it’s inherently divisive nature, thought sees division everywhere it looks, a division which doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in our minds. Like looking at reality through tinted sunglasses, the divisions we see are a property of the tool being used to make the observation, not a property of what is being observed.

    Point being, science will always be limited, because all knowledge is limited, because that which both are made of is inherently limited, like all other forms that appear in reality.

    Anybody can verify this for themselves. Take a meditation class for instance. Learn how to lower the volume of thought, or perhaps turn it off. Take off the tinted sunglasses, and then see reality without their distorting influence. This kind of knowing is a good complement to science, for while it doesn’t make us powerful, it does make us sane. And if we don’t learn how to do that, the era of science on planet Earth is quickly rushing towards it’s end.

    Reply
  7. Phil

    Coel writes, ” And by “works” we mean that it leads to predictions of eclipses that come true, it leads to medicines that can cure people, it leads to accounts of reality that demonstrably contain understanding of the world.”

    It’s certainly true that science empowers human beings. What’s left out of this one sided science worshiping definition is that science empowers both the constructive instincts of human beings, and the destructive instincts too. Thus, it’s not automatically and obviously true that an effective method for developing knowledge, and thus power, is a net benefit to humanity. Science may be a path towards utopia, or to the collapse of civilization. Again, the jury is still out, the question as yet undecided. Trying to turn science in to “one true way” kind of religion does not help one remain objective about that all important question.

    Coel writes, “For the most part scientists are unaware of much of philosophy, and usually don’t look to it for guidance as to how to proceed. ”

    And this may explain why science culture continues to fuel an ever accelerating knowledge explosion based on a simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge, that the success of science is rapidly making ever more outdated and dangerous.

    Very elementary logic is involve in this understanding. We reasonably limit the powers available to children based on the sensible understanding that their ability to manage power is limited. This equation does not automatically vanish the day the child becomes an adult. Adults also have a limited ability to manage power, and thus a simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge, and thus power, is inherently illogical.

    It’s certainly true that scientists excel at developing knowledge, that would be an entirely valid claim.

    It’s far less clear that scientists are capable of thinking through the implications of an ever accelerating infusion of new knowledge, and thus power, in to human culture. Thus, it seems reasonable for philosophers of science to remain on the job.

    Reply
    1. Phil

      Quinton wrote, “I wonder if I need a philosophical basis for eating food when I’m hungry.”

      You do indeed. You’d need a philosophy that life is better than death. Which is um, gonna be tricky, cause there’s exactly no evidence to work with.

    2. J. Quinton

      I was getting at something much more… “banal” than living or dying.

      I get hungry. I eat food. I’m no longer hungry. Apparently I need a philosophical basis for “eating food makes hunger go away” if this philosopher of science is correct.

    3. Phil

      Ok then, so you need a philosophy that says comfort is better than pain. That can be debated. As example, most life learning arises from pain, not from comfort. You’re trying to dismiss philosophy with a lazy wave of the hand, and it’s not working.

    4. strongforce

      Phil wrote, “Ok then, so you need a philosophy that says comfort is better than pain. ” Does a paramecium need philosophy to ingest an amoeba?

    5. J. Quinton

      “then, so you need a philosophy that says comfort is better than pain”

      No. Where am I mentioning comfort or pain? Try reading it again without assuming human agency or any sort of ethics or desires.

      Maybe this is the problem, that some philosophers of science are injecting their own assumptions where they aren’t warranted and creating problems that need philosophical justification.

  8. verbosestoic

    It’s interesting that you posted this less than a week after I made a post on my blog about whether we can even trust science after hearing that the age-old advice that you should always finish all of your antibiotics in order to avoid creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria might have been wrong all along, which fits in with a lot of other scientific ideas that have been flipped-flopped on or studies that can’t be replicated. While at lot of that comes from medical science or psychology — which because of how different people can be will always have these sorts of issues — it’s still interesting to note that even the most fervent defenders of science list the fact that science corrects its errors as one of its big selling points, which implies that it gets things wrong enough to be able to tell that it DOES correct them reliably. And on top of that, I can’t think of any scientific theory that never needed to be corrected in any way, and a number of settled ones have been at least theoretically overturned. So, then, how much can we trust science when it says that X is true? It might decide that X is at best not entirely true and at worst false in the future!

    What I’ve noticed is that much of science’s errors, especially in medical science and psychology, come from not doing the analysis to find potential confounds, and so my suggestion was to turn philosophy loose on it and let it find all possible confounds, since it’s really good at doing that. So, ironically, that science needs to do more philosophy in order to be more trustworthy [grin].

    Reply
    1. Neil Rickert

      So, then, how much can we trust science when it says that X is true?

      This is the wrong question. And this is where philosophy of science goes wrong.

      Science is not about truth. It is about what works. Kepler’s laws are not true, but they work very well. We know that they are not true, because astronomers measure perturbations (where planetary motion varies from what Kepler’s laws predict). Boyles law is not true, but it works very well. We could say the same about a lot of science.

      Likewise, it is somewhat confused to think of science as correcting its errors. Rather, science finds something that works even better, and switches to using that. Science is fundamentally pragmatic.

    2. Phil

      If science was fundamentally pragmatic, wouldn’t it recognize that science is racing towards the end of science, and try to slow down?

      I think it’s more like this. As example, I was born to type. Does all the typing accomplish anything? No, not really. But I keep typing anyway because typing is what I was born to do. Bottom line, I don’t care what it is accomplishing, I type to be typing.

      Scientists develop knowledge because that is what they were born to do. Bottom line, they don’t care where it’s all going. They’re just doing what they do and will continue doing it until somebody or something stops them. They are pragmatic only in the sense that they’re being loyal to their natural talents.

    3. verbosestoic

      Neil,

      This is the wrong question. And this is where philosophy of science goes wrong.

      Science is not about truth. It is about what works.

      If science doesn’t have truth, then it doesn’t have knowledge, and so isn’t a way of knowing at all. That would be far worse for science than idea that it gets to truth eventually. The argument most scientismists make, at least, is that by determining if the models and theories work we can justify thinking that they are true. If you deny that, then you have a lot of issues to address including, for example, justifying Plantinga’s argument that just because something works doesn’t mean that it’s true, and how to determine if science is a reliable mechanism (which involves seeing how often it produces true statements). It would also become hard to defend against people accepting different “sciences” with different assumptions on how to determine what is the current “best” theory — by, say, rejecting parsimony and naturalism — as long as they all “work”, meaning produce similar propositions that produce the same predictions and match up with everything we’ve observed.

      We can argue over what it means for something to be true, but getting science out of the truth business entirely is not likely to work out well for science.

    4. Neil Rickert

      verbosestoic: If science doesn’t have truth, then it doesn’t have knowledge, and so isn’t a way of knowing at all.

      I presume that you are relying on the philosophers’ definition of knowledge as justified true belief. But that’s an extremely artificial definition.

      If I call in a plumber, then I won’t be impressed with his ability to spout off true beliefs about pipes. Instead, I want him to know how to actually fix the pipes. Knowledge has to do with “how to”, not with the ability to make impressive sounding speeches.

    5. verbosestoic

      Neil,

      I presume that you are relying on the philosophers’ definition of knowledge as justified true belief. But that’s an extremely artificial definition.

      It would also seem to be the only one we have, though, given that it comes from the only field — epistemology — that has dedicated itself to the study of knowledge in all its forms using all possible methods. If you aren’t using either their definition of knowledge OR the common one, it’s hard to see how any claim that science is the only way of knowing could have any possible meaning.

      If I call in a plumber, then I won’t be impressed with his ability to spout off true beliefs about pipes. Instead, I want him to know how to actually fix the pipes. Knowledge has to do with “how to”, not with the ability to make impressive sounding speeches.

      Presumably, the plumber is capable of fixing the pipes BECAUSE he has a lot of true beliefs about pipes, that he could thus spout off if asked. The only other case, again, ties back to Plantinga, with a plumber who has a lot of completely false beliefs about pipes but has cobbled them together in such a way that they happen to lead him to the right actions to fix your pipes. If this is actually possible, then we have someone who knows nothing about pipes but happens to have a set of beliefs that produce proper actions, and we’d hope we could do better than that. But in practice if a plumber spouted off all sorts of false or superstitious — eg “The plumbing fairies don’t like the smell of hair, and so when it gets to be too much they leave and so your water won’t drain” — beliefs about pipes but managed to fix it, even you are more likely to conclude that he got lucky and call someone who can spout off true beliefs about pipes than you are to conclude that that plumber really knows what he’s doing/talking about.

      Again, most scientismists presume that if you have a set of beliefs that work, then that justifies claiming that you have true beliefs, and that if you have true beliefs then they will “work”. Breaking that association allows for things working out completely accidentally, and those beliefs being immune to challenge as they can always be altered to “work” given the new data. Science utterly denies that both things are possible, let alone desirable.

  9. Phil

    I think Coel is right that we can count on science to develop new knowledge, we just need to accept that it’s not always a linear path. Two steps forward, one step back, but they do gradually get there.

    As best I can tell, we can’t count on science to make insightful judgments about when developing new knowledge is advisable. Maybe we can look to philosophers for this, or maybe they’re trapped inside of the same “more is better” assumption. I’d like to read more on that question.

    Reply
  10. Phil

    Coel concludes, “But philosophy is not necessary to science, since on the whole scientists are better than philosophers at deducing which methods do and do not work in finding out about the real world; after all they have by far the best track record of so doing.”

    Here’s a counter argument proposing that philosophy is necessary to science.

    Science depends on civilization. Civilization depends upon the successful management of the powers that flow from new knowledge. Successful management of emerging powers becomes increasingly difficult when ever larger powers are coming online at an ever faster rate. If successful management fails, civilization goes away, and along with it science.

    Philosophy is necessary to science because science culture has an understandable built-in bias for the simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge which is the primary threat to successful management of power, civilization, and thus science.

    Science culture is like an ever more powerful engine in your car that has no idea where the car is going, nor does it really care. The job of the engine is to propel the car forward, it does it’s job well, and that’s it. The engine is very useful, and also blind.

    Science requires for it’s survival those outside the built-in bias of science culture who can observe the knowledge development process as a whole more objectively from the outside.

    Generally speaking, scientists don’t get this, which is why they are so often trying to sweep away input from the public, philosophers, theologians and others with a larger view, with a superior wave of their blind hands.

    Scientists are very good at what they do. And what they do is nowhere near enough.

    Reply
  11. Neil Rickert

    Phil: If science was fundamentally pragmatic, wouldn’t it recognize that science is racing towards the end of science, and try to slow down?

    This makes no sense. You clearly do not understand what motivates scientists.

    Reply
  12. Phil

    What makes no sense? Are you saying that it makes no sense that science is racing towards the end of science? If yes, then first read my comments above where the issue is already addressed in some detail, and then reply with a specific challenge, or ask for further clarification. Thanks.

    Reply
  13. Phil

    Neil, just made a quick visit to your blog, looks interesting, will explore further. If questioning conventional wisdom is your interest, please note, that’s exactly what I’m attempting to do above.

    Should it interest you, I’ve also been writing on this topic in more detail on the Naked Scientists forum, would enjoy meeting you there. Will provide links if requested.

    Reply
  14. Neil Rickert

    verbosestoic: It would also seem to be the only one we have, though, given that it comes from the only field — epistemology — that has dedicated itself to the study of knowledge in all its forms using all possible methods.

    Piaget studied knowledge, and he studied it with the methods of experimental science.

    Teachers, who might be said to be knowledge workers, thought that Piaget’s work was of considerable value.

    Reply
    1. verbosestoic

      Piaget studied knowledge, and he studied it with the methods of experimental science.

      An approach that is known, in philosophical circles as “naturalized epistemology”. Hardly an example, then, of an alternative approach to knowledge than epistemology.

      Also, I note that you didn’t answer my comment on the fact that a plumber had better be able to spout true beliefs about pipes if they are expected to make their plumbing “work”.

  15. Phil

    Neil wrote, “f I call in a plumber, then I won’t be impressed with his ability to spout off true beliefs about pipes. Instead, I want him to know how to actually fix the pipes. Knowledge has to do with “how to”, not with the ability to make impressive sounding speeches.”

    What if your plumber is really good at fixing pipe, and fixes them all, and that leads to the collapse of modern civilization. Still impressed?

    So let’s talk “how to”, agreed.

    How do we successfully manage each and every one of the ever larger powers which will roll off the knowledge explosion assembly line at ever faster rates? Each and every existential scale power like nuclear weapons will have to be successfully managed each and every day forever. A single failure a single time with a single power of that scale will make all other accomplishments irrelevant, because it’s game over.

    Does your science plumber know how to create such powers? Yes, he’s really good at it. Does he know what to do with all such powers once he’s created them? No, hasn’t a clue.

    If we apply your “how to” test to the creation of new knowledge, the scientist passes with flying colors. If we apply your “how to” test to civilization surviving all the powers the scientist creates, it’s a whole different story.

    If your scientist plumber refuses to take the larger vision of his work, he’ll probably crash civilization, and then there will be no more science or scientist. Focusing narrowly and stubbornly on “I can make the pipes work” alone is most likely suicidal for the scientist. Is that pragmatic? Is it sensible, practical, logical?

    Reply
    1. Neil Rickert

      What if your plumber is really good at fixing pipe, and fixes them all, and that leads to the collapse of modern civilization. Still impressed?

      Yes, I’m impressed. That is to say, you are leaving an impression with me.

      The post we are discussing started with an article by Susan Haack, as to whether philosophy is failing. If philosophers cannot do better than the arguments that you are making, then philosophy deserves to fail.

      That is the impression you are leaving.

  16. Phil

    Ah yes, the ever popular ever vague “above it all” defense which excels at efficiency, at the price of credibility. We can always tell when someone has run of out logic when they start trying to shift the focus from the post to the poster.

    Please prove to us you are “above it all” by debunking this, from above…

    “Science requires for it’s survival those outside the built-in bias of science culture who can observe the knowledge development process as a whole more objectively from the outside.”

    That statement is directly relevant to Coel’s article, and is supported by extensive reasoning above.

    You are bowing out because you can’t keep up.

    Reply
  17. Patrice Ayme

    Neil, Phil:
    If one planted a knife in a back, killing a person, that doesn’t mean the knife is not reliable. Quite the opposite. What postmodernist lunacy has asserted, though, is that the knife (science) is a social construct, and thus has no validity. In the realm of unreason, that puts that type of postmodernism significantly lower than the average bomb making Jihadist (who at least knows science is real).

    True, H bombs are real, and a huge problem. Precisely because they are so tried and true. Instead of claiming that only philosophy can justify (?) the world, a silly way of asserting that philosophers are gods, one should study how to get out of the possible misuses of nuclear weapons, new science such as CRISP R, and, certainly, deleterious insecticides and herbicides. Scientific method just found that all honey tested, worldwide to be contaminated by Neonicotinoids, a recent class of insecticide which give Alzheimer to bees..

    Science is what works, because science is true and truth is what works.

    Reply
  18. Phil

    Hi Patrice,

    Science works if we limit the definition of “works” to “can create new technical information”. Science doesn’t work if we expand the definition to include the willingness and ability to question in what circumstances we should be creating new technical information.

    The job of the scientist is to create new information, and science is the best tool for this, so from the scientist’s perspective it’s understandable that they insist that “science works”. It does work, within the limited perspective of the scientist.

    The problem arise when creating new information becomes a kind of “one true way” religion, a form of blind obedience to a faith based dogma, and then such a dogma comes in to conflict with what is happening in the real world, which is….

    The remarkable success of science has created a revolutionary new environment where the ancient “more is better” relationship with knowledge which has served us so well so long is no longer automatically rational and constructive. If there is any value to nuclear weapons it is that they illustrate the dangerous nature of this new environment in a straightforward simple manner which is, or at least should be, very easy to see.

    Science doesn’t work if we define “works” as the ability to adapt to this emerging new environment, because those whose value depends entirely upon their ability to create new knowledge are uniquely ill equipped to challenge the simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge which is the foundation of their enterprise. To ask a scientist to challenge the “more is better” relationship with knowledge is like asking the Pope to challenge the divinity of Jesus.

    The new environment science has created requires inspection by some group of people who don’t have a profound built-in bias for the “more is better” relationship with knowledge, because only those free of that bias can hope to examine it objectively.

    Rational scientists should welcome such a process, because without it there is ample evidence that we may be racing towards the end of the science era. And they should welcome it with some urgency, because the science era could literally end some time later today.

    Reply
    1. Neil Rickert

      The job of the scientist is to create new information, and science is the best tool for this, so from the scientist’s perspective it’s understandable that they insist that “science works”.

      LOL.

      The best tool for creating new information, is the random number generator. It can create lots of new information with little effort.

      The information from science is far more useful than that from random number generators. However, the information from random number generators is actually useful. Our cryptography depends on it.

  19. Pingback: Another philosopher of science doesn’t understand science | coelsblog

  20. Pingback: Does Science Justify Itself? | The Verbose Stoic

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