Quillette magazine recently published a piece written by Spencer Hall giving: “The Philosophical Case against Scientism”. He begins:
Scientism is the claim that science is the only source of knowledge.
Let’s accept this definition, though it’s important to note that no-one defending such a thesis would interpret “science” in a narrow sense, but would regard it broadly as including the gathering of empirical evidence and rational analysis and conceptualising about that evidence. Thus, “scientism” would not, for example, deny that historians can generate knowledge, it would instead claim that they are doing so using methods that are pretty much the same as those used also by scientists. The differences in approach then arise from the pragmatics of what sort of evidence is accessible, not from their being distinct and separate “ways of knowing”.
The philosophical case that Hall presents is based on the problem of induction. No amount of observing a regularity proves that it will still hold tomorrow. The supposition that it will requires a “uniformity of nature” thesis that the future will be like the past, and since we cannot obtain empirical evidence from the future, that thesis — it is claimed — cannot be proven by science. Continue reading
As philosophers are fond of pointing out, induction is logically unsound: no track record, however lengthy, of observing that swans are white can validate the conclusion that all swans are certainly white and that no-one will ever encounter a black swan. Yet science uses induction every day, and it works. Our sampling of information is always partial, and yet that partial information tells us enough about the world around us to generate highly successful predictions and to produce engineering and technology that works. One can thus ask on what basis science uses the principle of induction.
Some would argue that induction is an example of a basic assumption of science that cannot be further justified. They might claim that all “ways of knowing” depend on such unverified assumptions, that science is just one example of such a system, and that other assumptions can lead to equally valid domains of understanding, such as theology.
A scientist, though, would argue that tools of science such as induction are not arbitrary, but are themselves justified by science. The scientific method is itself the product of science, deriving from a long historical process of working out what works. Thus, by bootstrapping, science arrives at methods that produce good predictions about the world, and produce engineering and technology that works. Continue reading