Tag Archives: epistemology

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. The best understanding is produced by combining and synthesizing different approaches, asserting that — since the natural world is a unified whole — different approaches to knowledge must mesh seamlessly and combine constructively.

The remant of a supernova explosion which was recorded in AD 1006 by Chinese, Egyptian and European sky watchers.

As a real example, an astronomer could be studying the visible remnant of a supernova explosion. Knowing the age of the remnant would be crucial for calculating “hard physics” such as the energy of the explosion. So the astronomer would be very interested in sightings of the explosion found in thousand-year-old Chinese records.

But to interpret such records, and accurately date the supernova, one would need to know a lot about Chinese culture of the time, their calendar and how they counted years, how they referred to different positions in the sky, how they interpreted celestial events, and how that was bound up with their lore and religion. In other words, one would need to know a lot about history and culture, which are normally regarded as part of the humanities, not part of the physical sciences.

So would an astronomer start worrying that by using ancient records they were straying outside of science? Could they legitimately use such information, or might the resulting paper get rejected during peer review as being “not science”?

It has been suggested that these markings, made 6000 years ago in India, are a sky map recording an ancient supernova.

To a scientist, any such worry would be absurd. Of course historical records, of all types, are valid information that can be used to calculate the energy of an exploding star; why wouldn’t they be?

Scientists would, obviously, concern themselves with the reliability of the information, just as they do for any scientific information, but it wouldn’t occur to them to worry about any supposed line of demarcation, nor to worry about crossing it. Their whole world view — likely so obvious to them as to be unquestioned — tells them to regard everything as within bounds, all knowledge as within their purview.

Let’s take another example, that of migration patterns of human peoples over thousands of years. Anyone studying our past would use all the information they could get, whether that is “scientific”, “cultural”, “historical” or whatever. This might include archaeology, cultural patterns within archaeological finds such as pottery, geophysical surveys of the landscape, analysis of ancient pollen, genetic analysis of living peoples, genetic analysis of ancient skeletons, analysis of languages and language families, and consideration of historical records and cultural traditions.

Any attempt to create an epistemological divide between “science” and “history” is untenable. On what date in the past does the study of ancient humans stop being “history” (part of the humanities) and start being archaeology (is that a humanity or a science?) or paleontology (definitely a science)?

If the reply is that there is no clear demarcation, but instead a messy transition, then that concedes the point, since within the transitional period all types of evidence would be relevant and valid, and must combine coherently and consistently towards a unified truth about what did happen.

That must be the case, unless you are going to throw out the whole concept of objective truth, and argue that truth is socially constructed, and so declare that you simply don’t care whether or not your cultural history is consistent with the archaeology.

Of course the day-to-day practice of history is very different from that of, say, biochemistry, simply because the types of evidence available are very different and that dictates the style of investigation. The historian cannot adopt the test-tube style of a chemist. But then nor can the astronomer and nor the practitioner of other historical sciences such as geology or paleobiology.

The availability of evidence determines the styles of investigation that are practical and possible, and science, being pragmatic, will adopt whatever methods work in that circumstance — and then attempt to mesh the different approaches into a coherent whole.

A style of literary analysis based on feeding a whole corpus into a computer and counting particular words and phrases is a valid way of studying literature. It doesn’t replace more traditional methods, it complements them. How well such tactics work is something to be carefully assessed, but one shouldn’t reject them a priori while muttering about the over-reach of science. Adding in new methods and styles of investigation can only be a boon; they can only aid us in reaching a better and more complete understanding.

The “unity of knowledge” thesis, in which styles of learning from both the huamnities and the sciences can collaborate constructively, strikes me as both reasonable and conciliatory. A few years ago, though, such a statement by Steven Pinker in the New Republic received a bad-tempered response from non-scientist Leon Wieseltier. As discussed by Russell Blackford in his contribution to this volume, “many humanities scholars will interpret Pinker with alarm”, since they interpret the claim as being that “all problems are solveable through distinctively scientific techniques”, such that “contributions from the humanities — or even from such social-science disciplines as anthropology — are unwelcome or irrelevant”.

But such an interpretation is either a misunderstanding or a strawman, since, as Blackford also states: “it is not obvious who makes such a claim”. While many scientific techniques can contribute to knowledge about human history, culture and other domains that are labelled “the humanities”, none of this, Blackford continues, “goes anywhere near displacing, as opposed to supplementing and assisting, traditional forms of erudition and scholarship”.

In one of the more scientistic essays in the volume, Boudry agrees with the unity-of-knowledge thesis, or more precisely he asserts the commonality of epistemology.

My plumber may be quite adroit in inevstigating a leakage, but I would not ordinarily call him a scientist. […] From an epistemic point of view, however, there are plenty of commonalities between what a biologist is doing in the lab and what the plumber is doing when he trying to locate a leak in my water supply. The plumber is making observations, testing out different hypotheses, using logical inferences, and so on. […] It would certainly be a peculiar usage of language to call my humble plumber a scientist, but then again, it would be strange to think that any point of epistemological interest hinges in withholding that status from him.

Philip Kitcher’s essay is billed as opposing scientism, being a lengthy paean arguing that “history and humanities are also a form of knowledge”, and describing the ways in which the style of enquiry must necessarily adapt to the subject matter. But this is only opposing the strawman version of scientism, not a scientism that anyone advocates. Kitcher himself concludes that: “human enquiry needs a synthesis, in which history and anthropology and literature and art play their parts”, offering “a partnership in which different strengths and styles are acknowledged and appreciated” and where “constructive criticism is given and received”.

A stance that is actually opposed to scientism would reject such a synthesis, and would argue that the natural sciences are irrelevant to the social sciences, the arts and to the humanities. This could arise, for example, if human minds really were a “blank slate” created entirely by culture, with genetics and biology playing no role.

Thus, while scientism argues for a consilience in which the social science and the humanities should look to biology and evolutionary psychology for partnership and two-way constructive criticism, the anti-thesis is the rejection of that synthesis in preference for the ideology that these disciplines operate in fundamentally different domains such that they needn’t talk to each other.

The compilation by Boudry and Pugliucci doesn’t contain any contribution arguing for such a divide, though such blank-slate and postmodernist ideologies have traction in too wide a swathe of academia. While an attempt at such a essay might have been an interesting addition, the thesis doesn’t seem to me remotely tenable, and neither of the editors have any sympathy with postmodernism.

Forthcoming Installment: the supposed divide between science and philosophy.


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. Continue reading

Reductionism and Unity in Science

One problem encountered when physicists talk to philosophers of science is that we are, to quote George Bernard Shaw out of context, divided by a common language. A prime example concerns the word “reductionism”, which means different things to the two communities.

In the 20th Century the Logical Positivist philosophers were engaged in a highly normative program of specifying how they thought academic enquiry and science should be conducted. In 1961, Ernest Nagel published “The Structure of Science”, in which he discussed how high-level explanatory concepts (those applying to complex ensembles, and thus as used in biology or the social sciences) should be related to lower-level concepts (as used in physics). He proposed that theories at the different levels should be closely related and linked by explicit and tightly specified “bridge laws”. This idea is what philosophers call “inter-theoretic reductionism”, or just “reductionism”. It is a rather strong thesis about linkages between different levels of explanation in science.

To cut a long story short, Nagel’s conception does not work; nature is not like that. Amongst philosophers, Jerry Fodor has been influential in refuting Nagel’s reductionism as applied to many sciences. He called the sciences that cannot be Nagel-style reduced to lower-level descriptions the “special sciences”. This is a rather weird term to use since all sciences turn out to be “special sciences” (Nagel-style bridge-law reductionism does not always work even within fundamental particle physics, for which see below), but the term is a relic of the original presumption that a failure of Nagel-style reductionism would be the exception rather than the rule.

For the above reasons, philosophers of science generally maintain that “reductionism” (by which they mean the Nagel’s strong thesis) does not work, and on that they are right. They thus hold that physicists (who generally do espouse and defend a doctrine of reductionism) are naive in not realising that.

“The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known, and the difficulty is only that the exact application of these laws leads to equations much too complicated to be soluble.”     — Paul Dirac, 1929 [1]

The problem is, the physicists’ conception of reductionism is very different. Physicists are, for the most part, blithely unaware of the above debate within philosophy, since the ethos of Nagel-style reductionism did not come from physics and was never a live issue within physics. Physicists have always been pragmatic and have adopted whatever works, whatever nature leads them to. Thus, where nature leads them to Nagel-style bridge laws physicists will readily adopt them, but on the whole nature is not like that.

The physicists’ conception of “reductionism” is instead what philosophers would call “supervenience physicalism”. This is a vastly weaker thesis than Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction. The physicists’ thesis is ontological (about how the world is) in contrast to Nagel’s thesis which is epistemological (about how our ideas about the world should be). 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 roots of empiricism: Hume’s fork, and the divide between knowledge “by observation” and “by reason”

Scientia Salon recently published my article advocating that mathematics is best regarded as a part of science. In reply to “scientism week”, Massimo Pigliucci wrote an article criticising “the return of radical empiricism”. The collision of “scientism week” with “anti-scientism week” generated a lot of energy and comments!

Massimo Pigliucci’s article is well worth reading, being a clear exposition of the relevant ideas. He traces the issues back to Hume’s famous fork, in which Hume declares that:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact and real existence.


The “relations of ideas” category is taken to include mathematics and logic, where knowledge is “discoverable by the mere operation of thought”, while the “matters of fact” category contains science, where knowledge derives from empirical data.

Kant rejected Hume’s empiricism and sought to establish the primacy of reason. He adopted the term “a priori” for knowledge that does not derive from experience, in contrast toa posteriori” knowledge which does. A related concept is that of “analytic” statements, which follow from the definitions of the terms, contrasting with “synthetic” statements that describe how the world is.

This notion of a fundamental epistemological divide holds today, and is at the heart of resistance to the idea that mathematics, logic and science are a unified whole.

In reading Pigliucci’s article I agree with much of what he says, but, to me, he seems to miss the main arguments for the essential unity of the different domains of knowledge. I will thus outline how I see the roots of empiricism, and then consider the supposed divide between knowledge “from reasoning” versus knowledge “from observation”. Continue reading

Defending scientism: mathematics is a part of science

While the term “scientism” is often a rebuke to those considered to be overstepping the proper boundaries of science, plenty of scientists will plead guilty to the charge so long as they get a say in how the term is defined. The “scientism” that I defend is the claim that, as far as we can tell, all human knowledge is empirical, deriving from empirical contact with reality. Further, that empirical reality seems, as far as we can tell, to be a unified whole, and thus our knowledge of reality is also unified across different subject areas so that transitions between subjects are seamless.

What we call “science” is the set of methods that we have found, empirically, to be the best for gaining knowledge about the universe, and the same toolkit and the same basic ideas about evidence work in all subject areas. Thus there are no “other ways of knowing”, no demarcation lines across which science cannot tread, no “non-overlapping magisteria”.

A related but different stance is expounded by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci in his critique of scientism [1]. Pigliucci instead prefers the umbrella term “scientia”, which includes “science, philosophy, mathematics and logic”. This sees mathematics and logic as epistemologically distinct from science. Indeed Pigliucci has remarked:

it should be uncontroversial (although it actually isn’t) that the kind of attention to empirical evidence, theory construction, and the relation between the two that characterizes science is “distinctive enough” … to allow us to meaningfully speak of an activity that we call science as sufficiently distinct from … mathematics.

Mathematics is a huge area of knowledge where science has absolutely nothing to say, zip …” [2]

In this piece I argue that mathematics is a part of science. I should clarify that I am taking a broad interpretation of science. Nobody who defends scientism envisages science narrowly, as limited only to what is done in university science departments. Rather, science is conceived broadly as our best attempt to make sense of the empirical evidence we have about the world around us. The “scientific method” is not an axiomatic assumption of science, rather it is itself the product of science, of trying to figure out the world, and is now adopted because it has been found to work. Continue reading