Begging questions about philosophy, science and everything else

Those who know me well take great care not to say (at least when I am in earshot) “That begs the question…” and mean by that “That raises the question…”, or else they will get a dissertation delivered for a period on the right use of that phrase. That’s right, folks, I am a prescriptivist, at least about technical terms in philosophy. In fact it’s hard not to find prescriptivists in technical fields. Ask any random biologist about “gene” sometime.

So begging the question is something I feel strongly about. It means, technically, to use in your premises what you conclude in the argument. That is, you assume the truth of what it is you are arguing for in order to argue for it. Consider this classical gem:

The Bible is God’s Word, and God would not lie.
The Bible says God exists.
Therefore God exists.

Since the existence of God is what is at issue, presuming that the Bible is God’s word (therefore reliable on the matter) is circular reasoning. It “begs” the very question it addresses. The Latin phrase, for I greatly love Latin phrases to show how erudite I can pretend to be, is petitio principii, or assuming the beginning point [at issue]. It is widely thought to be a fallacy of reasoning, which I think it is in most, but not all, circumstances.

Suppose you encounter this argument: Science is worthless and a waste of time and resources, because science does not deliver beauty. Only art delivers beauty, and so only art should be given the resources and time that science now is. Why would you take that argument seriously? The unstated assumption in that line of reasoning is that only beauty is worthwhile striving for. Artists of course think that (or they would not be artists), but need we allow only the search for beauty? What about truth? What about meaning? What about chocolate?

A similar argument is apocryphally ascribed to the second Kalif, Omar: He is supposed (by a Christian 300 years after the fact) to have said of the Library of Alexandria’s holdings that “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” This myth indicates how religious authorities will often beg the question, even if in this case it didn’t actually happen (most of the Library was destroyed centuries before Omar’s army arrived).

But we expect better of the educated and cosmopolitan. It comes, therefore, as a continuing pain to me that scientists will often offer this piece of question beggary:

Science finds out things
Philosophy does not find out things the scientific way
Therefore philosophy is a waste of time and effort

The begged premise here is that only knowing things the scientific way is knowledge, or if the philosopher in question doesn’t say that knowledge is what philosophy offers, that only knowing things the scientific way is worthwhile. Some may even hint that only science delivers beauty, too.

Ever since I started doing philosophy I have been told, and have believed both on authority and on my own reflections, that the goal of philosophy is to make people think and to deliver clarity where before there was just confusion. Sometimes clarity means showing that confusion is inevitable, but I never thought, and most philosophers do not think, that philosophy delivers scientific knowledge. Instead they hope for insight, understanding, clarity and charity towards the ideas of others.

Generally, scientists do not. I know this sounds harsh, but it is true. Scientists want straightforward answers based on data, and will argue over meanings, interpretations and concepts only when they must, either to present or to defend a view. They want just so much clarity and understanding as they need to convince others their hypothesis, results or explanations are correct. Often, this is not, itself, very scientific. Having seen scientists argue over theories and doctrines of different research programs, I can say they use rhetorical and sophistical arguments as much as any political party when it suits them. Usually, though, scientists care very much about the truth of their claims. What they don’t care about is either history or interpretation.

Scientists live in a kind of self-contained hermeneutic bubble. They simply cannot usually see the point of any view other than their own. If they think science disproves religious beliefs, then so far as they are concerned, any person – scientist or not – who takes religion seriously is simply stupid. Anyone who grants, even for argument’s sake, that there might be pathways of knowing other than the mythical (since no such beast actually exists) “scientific method”, is a mental defective, a liar, or a self serving individual trying to get money out of someone. In other words, for that kind of scientist, they treat religion, philosophy and any non-scientific activity exactly the same way that some religious and science deniers treat science they do not like: as an act of faith that is simply false.

Now is this a criticism of those scientists? Yes, and no. Yes in that this approach simply abandons the canons of civil discourse that have been accepted in the western tradition for over 2500 years as being the best and most “rational” (i.e., requiring reasons for your claims, and not prejudging the debate one might have about those reasons). This is simply a matter of what used to be called “positivism”, a view that was invented by August Comte in the early 19th century. Science is al there is, and nothing else has worth unless it can be made scientific.

But on the other hand, if one thought there was something better than science, one might not be a scientist at all. Science is hard. It takes years to become a professional, and the return on investment is small. Few scientists end up wealthy; many end up doing something else. Almost none are ever remembered. So one cannot fault scientists for not being philosophers, another profession that takes most of your formative years to become competent in (contrary to many popular writers’ apparent belief), and which ends up with little to no remuneration (again, contrary to many popular writers’ experiences).

But still the begging of that question bugs me. When scientists try to extend science to cover all human activity, when they deny that other people who might disagree on the specific views they think are true (but which are not scientifically verifiable, like the value of art) have any standing or sense to them, when they simply denigrate anything that isn’t what they do personally, yes, that really is scientism.

This post is inspired by, and illustrated by, scientists Larry Moran’s and Jerry Coyne’s posts attacking philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Elliot Sober. Because the latter attend to questions of clarity of concepts, logic and meaning, and do not deliver “knowledge” (and what is knowledge one might philosophically ask?), Larry and Jerry accuse the philosophers of “arrogance” and “denigrating science”, neither of which seem to me correct. Moreover, arrogance seems to be inherent in the broad dismissal of a profession simply because it doesn’t do what the accuser’s profession does. Yes, Larry, that really is scientism. It is treating science as if it were a belief system that supersedes and excludes, by some sort of divine right, all other human activities.

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