Category Archives: Scientism

Another philosopher of science doesn’t understand science

Maybe I’m having a philosopher-bashing week. After disagreeing with Susan Haack’s account of science I then came across an article in the TLS by David Papineau, philosopher of science at King’s College London. He does a good job of persuading me that many philosophers of science don’t know much about science. After all, their “day job” is not studying science itself, but rather studying and responding to the writings of other philosophers of science.

Papineau writes:

No doubt some of the differences between philosophy and science stem from the different methods of investigation that they employ. Where philosophy hinges on analysis and argument, science is devoted to data. When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be. It is a professional requirement that they must present observational findings. If you don’t have any PowerPoint slides displaying your latest experimental results, then you don’t have a talk.

I wonder, has he ever been to a scientific conference? “When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be.” Err, yes they are! This is entirely normal. Scientists who do that are called “theorists”; and yes, they do indeed stand up at conferences and talk only about theoretical concepts and models. Such people are a major part of science. Universities have whole departments of, for example, “theoretical physics”.

How could Papineau have such a gross misconception? I suspect it comes from trying to see philosophy and science as distinct disciplines. The philosopher knows that philosophy is largely about concepts, and also knows that science is about empirical data. So the philosopher then leaps to the suggestion that science is only about empirical data, and not about theorising and concepts. After all, if science were about both empirical data and theories and concepts, then philosophy would not look so distinct and exalted in comparison.

Yet the “not about concepts” claim makes no sense since science is just as much about theories and models as about data. Without theories science would have only raw, un-interpreted streams of sensory data. In actuality, science is an iteration between theories and models, on the one hand, and empirical data on the other. Both are as important, with the real virtue of science being the iterative interaction of the two.

Papineau displays further his lack of understanding of science:

Scientific theories can themselves be infected by paradox. The quantum wave packet must collapse, but this violates physical law. Altruism can’t possibly evolve, but it does. Here again philosophical methods are called for.

Not so. There is no physical law that prohibits wave-function collapse (which is not the same as saying we have a good understanding of it). And the theory of reciprocal altruism gives a satisfactory account of the evolution of altruism, even in unrelated animals (kin selection explains it readily for close relatives). In neither case have the advances in understanding been driven by philosophers.

But Papineau continues:

We need to figure out where our thinking is leading us astray, to winnow through our theoretical presuppositions and locate the flaws. It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing.

Ah yes, the conceit that only philosophers can do thinking, whereas scientists are not so good at it. This, one presumes, follows from the suggestion that science is merely about data, whereas philosophers deal with the concepts? Again, this is about as wrong as it is possible to get.

The theory of evolution; the theories of special relativity and general relativity; the theory of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory; the standard model of particle physics; the Big Bang model of cosmology; the theories of statistical mechanics and of thermodynamics — these are all the products of science, and are demonstrably highly successful in giving understanding of phenomena in the world, in making predictions about those phenomena, and in enabling us to manipulate the world around us and to develop highly sophisticated technology.

What have philosophers got that is even remotely comparable in terms of demonstrated success? But Papineau wants to suggest that it’s the scientists who are “not very good” at theorising and thinking!

When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.

He really doesn’t know very much about theoretical physicists, or about scientists in general, does he! He then claims it a “great scandal” that:

Led by Niels Bohr and his obscurantist “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, [physicists] told generations of students that the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the theory were none of their business.

This is just wrong. It’s not that there are “glaring inconsistencies” — quantum mechanics is consistent and works well in accounting for the data — it’s that the interpretation of it is unclear.

“Shut up and calculate” was the typical response to any undergraduate who had the temerity to query the cogency of the theory.

No it wasn’t. Generations of undergraduates have been told about the difficulties of interpretation. Papineau doesn’t realise the degree of whimsy in phrases such as “shut up and calculate”; it is not intended literally! In fact there is no subject that physicists have deliberated and discussed more over the last 100 years than the interpretation of quantum mechanics!

So, after touting the alleged superiority of philosophers when it comes to thinking, how does he then explain away the blatant fact that science has been vastly more successful and makes vastly more progress than philosophy?

He concludes that philosophy is simply harder!

The difficulty of philosophy doesn’t stem from its peculiar subject matter or the inadequacy of its methods, but simply from the fact that it takes on the hard questions.

I beg to differ. I don’t see the questions of philosophy as any harder. Instead the lack of progress is fully down to its methods, and the principal culprit is in seeing philosophy as distinct from science, rather than as a part of science. By regarding itself as separate from science, philosophy divorces itself from empirical data, and so from information about the real world. Humans are simply not intelligent enough to get far by thinking alone, without any prompts from nature. Scientists aren’t, and philosophers certainly aren’t.

Papineau finishes by giving one example of what he sees as actual progress in philosophy:

The deficiencies of established views are exposed . . . The “boo-hurrah” account of moral judgements was all the rage in the middle of the last century, but no-one any longer defends this simple-minded emotivism.

But no actual deficiencies of emotivism have been exposed; it may be out of fashion in the philosophical world, but that really is just fashion. Is this really Papineau’s example of progress? It’s as likely that it’s a retrograde step.

Emotivism — the idea that morality is a matter of value judgements, pretty much akin to aesthetic judgements, and amounting to emotional approval or disapproval of certain acts — is a widely held opinion within science. Indeed it is the only account of morals that is consistent with the fact that humans are evolved animals. If philosophers move away from that position, and wander off to explore other conceptual possibilities that don’t relate to how humans actually are, they will be condemning themselves to further irrelevance.


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.

Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring. Continue reading

On Stephen Law on Scientism

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

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

Contra theologian Roger Trigg on the nature of science

scientismRoger Trigg is a senior theologian and philosopher. His new book, “Beyond Matter”, is soon to be published by the Templeton Press, part of the wealthy Templeton Foundation whose aim is to produce a religion-friendly version of science.

Roger Trigg

An excert from the book promotes a view of science that is common among philosophers. Those of us with a scientistic perspective see it as erroneous, and yet, since Trigg’s account of science is widely accepted, it is instructive to rebut it.

Trigg argues that science rests on metaphysical assumptions:

What then has to be the case for genuine science as such to be possible? This is a question from outside science and is, by definition, a philosophical — even a metaphysical — question. Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism — the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences — becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope. The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science. It is always a statement about science.

This view can be summarised by the “linear” schematic:


One can see why theologians like this account of science. If it were really true that science rested on metaphysical assumptions then science would be in big trouble, since no-one has ever proposed a good way of validating metaphysical assumptions. Continue reading

Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

scientism A common criticism of science is that it must make foundational assumptions that have to be taken on faith. It is, the critic asserts, just one world view among other, equally “valid”, world views that are based on different starting assumptions. Thus, the critic declares, science adopts naturalism as an axiom of faith, whereas a religious view is more complete in that it also allows for supernaturalism.

This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.

Any part of this web of ideas can be examined and replaced, if replacing it improves the overall match to reality. Even basic axioms of maths and logic can be evaluated, and thus they are ultimately accepted for empirical reasons, namely that they model the real world.

This view of knowledge was promoted by the Vienna Circle philosophers such as Otto Neurath, who gave the metaphor of knowledge being a raft floating at sea, where any part of it may be replaced. As worded by Quine: Continue reading

The unity of maths and physics revisited

scientism A major part of scientism is the idea that maths and logic are not distinct from science, but rather that they arise from the same fundamental root — they are all attempts to find descriptions of the world around us. The axioms of maths and logic are thus equivalent to the laws of physics, being statements of deep regularities of how the world behaves that enable us to describe and model the world.

My article advocating that mathematics is a part of science was recently posted on Scientia Salon. This was followed by an article by Massimo Pigliucci which took the opposite line and criticised the return of “radical empiricism”.

In response I wrote about the roots of empiricism, defending the radical empiricism that Pigliucci rejects. That post was getting rather long, so I have hived off parts into this post where I return to the distinction between mathematics and science. This is essentially a third part to my above two posts, countering various criticisms made on Scientia Salon.

To summarise the above arguments in two sentences, my critics were saying: “Well no, mathematics is anything but studying physical objects. It is the study of abstract concepts”, whereas I was saying, “Yes, mathematics is the study of abstract concepts, abstract concepts that are about the behaviour of the physical world”.

I have argued that maths and logic and science are all part of the same ensemble, being ideas adopted to model the world. We do that modelling by looking for regularities in the way the world works, and we abstract those into concepts that we call “laws of physics” or “axioms of maths” or of logic. Thus axioms of maths and logic are just as much empirical statements about the behaviour of the world as laws of physics. In part one I discussed other possible origins of mathematical axioms, while in part two I discussed the fundamental basis of empirical enquiry.

That leaves several possible differences between maths and science, which I address here: Continue reading