Tag Archives: consilience

Replying to Adam Frank and defending scientism

“I am a passionate scientist who is passionate about science, but I also think scientism is a huge mistake”, writes Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, in an article in The Big Think. As another astrophysicist, who has called this blog “defending scientism”, I am inspired to reply.

Adam Frank, Professor of Astrophysics and advocate of science.

Such disputes can boil down to what one means by the word “scientism”. Professor Frank quotes one definition as “the view that science is the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values”. On that definition I also would reject scientism (indeed I don’t think that anyone does advocate that position). Science cannot prescribe values or aims. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive, it gives you knowledge, not normativity (instead, values, aims and normativity can only come from humans).

But Frank also expounds:

In the philosophy that would come to underpin scientism, “objective” came to mean something more like “the world without us.” In this view, science was a means of gaining access to a perfectly objective world that had nothing to do with humans. It gave us a “God’s eye view” or a “perspective-less perspective.” Science, according to this philosophy, revealed to us the “real world,” which was the world independent of us. Therefore, its truths were “deeper” than others, and all aspects of our experience must, eventually, reduce down to the truths that science reveals. This is scientism.

I’m close to agreement with this version of scientism. Science does indeed attempt to reveal a real, objective world that is independent of us, and to a large measure it succeeds (though we can never attain any absolute certainty). And yes, science does give us truths about the world (as best as we humans can access them) that are more reliable and more extensive and thus “deeper” than other attempts to describe the world. But no, it is not true that “all aspects of our experience must, eventually, reduce down to the truths that science reveals”. Science is solely about attaining the best and truest description of the world (which includes ourselves) that we can. It doesn’t even pretend to encompass “aspects of our experience” other than that (indeed I’m not even sure what this claim would mean, and, again, I don’t think this is a view that anyone actually holds).

Professor Frank’s objection to scientism is that:

[Scientism] is just metaphysics, and there are lots and lots of metaphysical beliefs […] that you can adopt about reality and science depending on your inclinations. […] Scientism claims to be the only philosophy that can speak for science, but that is simply not the case. There are lots of philosophies of science out there.

So, according to Frank, scientism is just metaphysics, there is no evidence for it, and so adopting it comes down to personal choice, the very opposite of science. Effectively, science does not point to scientism.

I don’t find this critique convincing. In essence, “scientism” is a unity-of-knowledge thesis that the real world is a seamless, self-consistent whole, and thus that the best description of it will also be (or should, at least, aim towards being) a seamless, self-consistent whole. That is, there should be a “consilience”, or self-consistent meshing of different areas of knowledge and of ways of attaining that knowledge. Scientism is a rejection of the idea that there are distinct and different “ways of knowing”, each appropriate to different and distinct “domains” of knowledge.

But is that claim only a metaphysical belief, whose adoption is merely a “faith”? I submit that, no it is not. Instead, it’s the product of doing science and seeing what works best. Science rejects the supernatural, not as an a priori commitment, but because models of reality work better without it. In medieval times “the heavens” and the earthly world were regarded as different domains to which different rules applied, but then Newton invented a law of gravity that applied both to the Earth-bound fall of an apple and to the orbit of the Moon, unifying the two domains. Even then, the worldview of a scientist could involve a God (invoked by Newton, for example, to keep planetary orbits stable), but, as science progressed, it was found that we “had no need of that hypothesis“. And it had been thought that living animals were utterly distinct from inanimate matter, but nowadays the disciplines of physics and chemistry transition seamlessly through “biochemistry” into the disciplines of biology and ecology. And any proper account of sociology needs to mesh with evolutionary psychology.

Through that progression we have found no sharp divides, no deep epistemological ravines that science cannot cross. The strategy of unifying different areas of knowledge has always proven the more successful.

Thus science does indeed point to scientism, and the unity-of-knowledge view is a product of science. It is not simply one of a number of un-evidenced metaphysical possibilities, it is the one to which the history and current trajectory of science points.

And the idea is refutable. If you want to reject scientism then put forward an alternative “way of knowing” that gives reliable knowledge about the world and yet is clearly distinct from the methods of science. Be sure to include a demonstration that such knowledge is indeed valid and reliable, and thus comparable to scientific knowledge, but without using science in that demonstration.

Scientism: Part 4: Reductionism

This is the Fourth Part of a review of Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. See also Part 1: Pseudoscience, Part 2: The Humanities, and Part 3: Philosophy.

Reductionism is a big, bad, bogey word, usually uttered by those accusing others of holding naive and simplistic notions. The dominant opinion among philosophers is that reductionism does not work, whereas scientists use reductionist methods all the time and see nothing wrong with doing so.

That paradox is resolved by realising that “reductionism” means very different things to different people. To scientists it is an ontological thesis. It says that if one exactly replicates all the low-level ontology of a complex system, then all of the high-level behaviour would be entailed. Thus there cannot be a difference in high-level behaviour without there being a low-level difference (if someone is thinking “I fancy coffee” instead of “I fancy tea”, then there must be a difference in patterns of electrical signals swirling around their neurons). Continue reading

Science Unlimited, Part Two: The Humanities

This is the Second Part of a review of “Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism”, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. Part 1, focusing on pseudoscience, is here.

The Claim of Scientism can be stated overly crudely as “science is the only way of answering questions”, which of course is guaranteed to raise hackles. But in the non-strawman version scientism does not assert that humanities can never contribute to knowledge, instead it asserts that ways of finding things out are fundamentally the same in all disciplines. Any differences in methods are then merely consequences of the types of evidence that are available, rather than reflecting an actual epistemological division into “different ways of knowing”. The prospect is not, therefore, of a hostile takeover of the humanities, but of a union or conscilience (to use a term that E. O. Wilson revived from Whewell).

In its least offensive statement, scientism states that science is pragmatic, and that it will use any type of evidence that it can get its hands on. 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

On Wieseltier on Pinker: How to misunderstand scientism in one easy step

One theme runs through most discussions of scientism: two sides are talking past each other because they have very different conceptions of science and interpret the word very differently. Never has this been so exemplified as by Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s widely discussed piece “Science is not your enemy”.

Those defending scientism conceive of science broadly. They see the universe as a unified whole and take an overview of our attempts to gain knowledge of this whole. They see a separation into different disciplines as a useful labelling, but not as reflecting any underlying rifts or divisions in how the world actually is, or in our knowledge about it. Between any arbitrarily defined academic disciplines there always lies a seamless transition of inter-disciplinary learning.

The essential commitment of scientism is the attitude that the same underlying rules of evidence and logic and reason apply everywhere, across all academic disciplines. Thus the different disciplines differ not in fundamentals, but in the subject matter and in the practicalities of investigating different topics.

Further, a scientist sees humans as very much a product of the natural world, as one species that has evolved among millions of others over eons of time, and very much bearing the stamp of our origins. To those espousing scientism, learning about social interactions among humans is just as much a science as learning about social interactions among chimpanzees or zebra. Studying humans as they are now or as they were one thousand years ago transitions seamlessly into studying humans as they were a hundred thousand years ago, or how their ancestors were ten million years ago.

All biological processes are continua, and to set a rigid date and declare that investigation of humans as they were earlier than (say) 6000 years ago is “science” but that investigations of humans more recently is not a science, but instead an arts/humanities subject, is utterly arbitrary and alien to how scientists think.

Further, to pick one species out of the 30 million extant species and to declare that studying that one is not a science, whereas studying any of the other 30 million would be, is contrary to our whole scientific understanding of humans as a natural part of the natural world.

Thus, to a scientist, it is natural to think of the study of humans (history, economics, politics, and the study of the literature and art that humans create) as a branch of anthropology, the study of ourselves. This isn’t just semantics, it’s the way that evidence has led scientists to think about humans. Continue reading

What does “science” in “scientism” mean?

Scientism is usually an accusation, an insult hurled at someone who is accused of not knowing the limits of science, and of arrogantly and ignorantly stomping all over areas of human interest that are the proper domain of “other ways of knowing”. Yet, increasingly, the word “scientism” is being claimed by defenders and supporters of a scientistic outlook. This can lead to differing definitions of “scientism”.

I personally define “scientism” to mean the claim that any questions to which humans can know the answer (with some confidence in the reliability of their knowledge) are answerable by science, and that science is the right tool to gain that answer. Or, stating the same another way, any method of finding such answers becomes part of science. A third way of saying this is the assertion that there are no “other ways of knowing” that are fundamentally distinct from science and that can do better than science.

Thus science is largely defined by “what works”, being the set of methods that have been established to give reliably true answers, methods that have been selected and honed precisely as a result of finding out what does work.

The underlying idea is that the natural world is a seamless whole, with no clear and uncrossable divides between different domains. Hence, knowledge about the world is also a seamless whole, and principles of evidence and reason apply the same everywhere. Thus evidence- and reason-based enquiry is the proper tool for investigating any area of human interest.

This is an explicit rejection of the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea that different areas of human enquiry are divided into rigidly demarked zones where different rules apply. No-one has established that different rules do apply, and the claim is usually made as a way of avoiding tiresome requests for evidence. Science keep out! We don’t want to have to supply evidence, we want to believe whatever we want to believe without having to justify it in any objective fashion!

This raises the question of what we mean by “science”. Continue reading