So I’ve been busy with work, and finding a flat and preparing to move. Larry’s been busy tearing strips off those who argue that the ENCODE data shows the genome is mostly functional (only if you think that doing anything happens to be functional). But I hadn’t forgotten his latest claim that methodological naturalism is an undue restriction on science, nor his tweets that “scientism” is just an insult. I owe him a reply.
Let’s begin with the term “scientism”. I take it to be a descriptive term, roughly meaning someone who thinks that all conceptual legitimacy must derive from science. It is usually pejorative. So is “conservatism” when used by those who think it is a false political ideology. However, I use that term to denote a number of political attitudes and ideas (with which, as it happens, I mostly disagree); I don’t mean to use it as an insult; nor do I with “scientism” or any other philosophical position.
Yes, you read that rightly – scientism is a philosophical position. It is better given its historical name: positivism. In the early 19th century August Comte wanted to replace traditional theistic religions with a secular religion, because he thought (as many still do) that religions made for better communities. So he called the kind of scientific religion he wanted positivism, because it was a kind of positive knowledge. He claimed to have discovered a “great fundamental law” of human knowledge, that it passes through three stages:
The law is this :—that each of our leading conceptions—each branch of our knowledge-passes successively through three different theoretical condititions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive. In other words, the human mind, by its nature, employs in its progress three methods of philosophizing, the character of which is essentially different, and even radically opposed: viz., the theological method, the metaphysical, and the positive. [Harriet Martineau’s 1868 translation.]
What makes something positive knowledge?
In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws—that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science.
In short, science replaces theology and philosophy, and nothing that is not reasoning and observation is knowledge. This is exactly what Larry and those who attack philosophy think. In the early 20th century, a version of this known as logical positivism was the ruling philosophical view among Anglophones; replaced only when it was shown by philosophical argument that it was self-defeating. Positivists thought that metaphysical claims – any claim not based on observation and reasoning – were literally meaningless nonsense. They may as well have been noises. The claim that “metaphysical claims are nonsense” (let’s call that sentence M), however, has not been observed, nor is it a reasoned inference from any observations (you cannot observe metaphysical claims). So the core claim of positivism, M, is nonsense, by their own lights. [In philosophy this is called a tu quoque, or “you too”, argument.]
There are various versions of this but they all have one thing in common: whatever M is in a positivist perspective is not itself positive knowledge. It’s like the famous passage in Hume’s Enquiry:
When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. [Enquiry Sect XII, Part II, Para 132]
And yet Hume’s own work contains neither mathematics nor experimental reasoning. He must have been aware of the irony. The positivist/scientistic tradition seems oblivious to the irony, however.
Now I am not saying that if somebody thinks that science is the best way to gather knowledge they are a positivist. I think that, for example, and I am no positivist. Nor is it the claim that all knowledge is like science, which I also think. Instead it is this: the view that one can rule out any nonscientific claim out of court. You do not even need to consider it. If it is nonscientific, it is nonsense. Philosophy, as I understand it and define it, is nonscientific (that is, it is not done the way science is done; it is not necessarily in contradiction to science, although much of it can be). It is therefore nonsense, to be replaced by science. This is how recent scientists have treated philosophy –
Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. [The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Mlodinow, page 5]
The physicist philosophers who I know would be surprised to find that (i) they had not kept up with modern physics, despite their many publications on it, and (ii) that they ever held the torch of discovery, or any philosophers in the modern era. But let’s leave this silliness to one side and consider what it indicates about this scientism: it is profoundly positivistic. It presumes something like the claim that only science matters when considering issues. Science most certainly matters. But is it all that matters? Asking that very question is not a scientific question. QED.
Now let’s consider methodological naturalism.
The term has been around for a long while; if you have the notion of naturalism, it’s no great stretch to add adjectives like “methodological”, but in the sense used here it is fairly recent. The project of naturalising epistemology, which is to say to make the gathering of knowledge a purely natural (biological?) process rather than a Cartesian special outcome of logic and observation, hit its stride in the latter half of the century, especially as Quine baptised it in a chapter so entitled.
But the current use– that science is restricted to observing, explaining and describing only natural things and events – is fairly recent. It took off largely from 1990, when Philip E. Johnson, the lawyer who promoted intelligent design, published his book Darwin on Trial. Johnson wanted to contrast methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism, and argued that science is committed to neither. Now there was a perfectly good series of terms for the latter: materialism until the 20th century, and physicalism during it (not everything in physics is material, as most educated school kids could tell you these days. Most stuff is energy or fields). And “methodological naturalism” as Johnson and those who took it up meant it also had a name: scientific method.
I’ve often noted that there is no such single thing as “scientific method”, a view that has been a consensus in philosophy of science since at least the mid 70s when Feyerabend forcefully put that case (but which had been put before him, of course; all good ideas have been put before). But there are several things that science does that are worthy of the name: the use of observational evidence, the use of abductive and inductive reasoning to generalise and explain, and the use of deductive reasoning to winkle out the implications of the foregoing. Terms like “theory construction”, “disciplinary matrix” and “research program” are fancier ways to say just this, and what Larry rightly notes as many do, this is what we do when we do something else that is much wider than science and which also has a pre-existing name: learning. Scientists learn just like the rest of us do, from experience, only they are much more careful about doing it, and try not to mix in their own expectations, and they report in often excruciating detail to others so that the rest of us don’t have to learn the way they did. It works, bitches. But what scientists do is what anyone does when they learn by experience, in spades.
Calling it “methodological naturalism” is like calling driving “vehicular autonomic control”; it adds nothing but the illusion there is something strange going on. Science is not constrained by methodological naturalism. Science just is methodological naturalism. Anything scientists can observe reliably and intersubjectively, and which behaves in a regular enough fashion, is investigable. Anything that can’t be or doesn’t, isn’t. So if God or art or poetry can be investigated that way – if we can learn about it by experience – then science can investigate it.
The problem is not that science is somehow forbidden to do this. The problem is that moral and theological questions often (not always) are not investigable by their nature. Either there’s nothing to observe (like moral prescriptions or obligations), or they fail to behave in a regular fashion (a reason why I doubt there will ever be a true science of economics). Those parts of theology and ethics that can be investigated scientifically, should be (but again, there’s a principle that cannot be!). We can disprove many claims of non-natural beliefs. Religions that think the world is 6000 years old or extends only to the sphere of Saturn, or moral systems (like libertarianism) that predict empirical outcomes that are contrary-to-fact are falsified when investigated (by science or just by someone who is learning less formally). But there remains a residual and indefinitely large number of beliefs that are, as I have previously called them, “empirically inoculated”. The facts do not fix all the solutions.
So when a philosopher considers a case like Sober’s target, whether a god could intervene in evolution without leaving an empirical trace, this is not to support theism but to, as I said, stress test ideas. If it turns out that the concept is neither logically nor empirically contradictory, then you may not like the idea, but you cannot say with justification that science disproves it.
The argument is not all about disproof, though. Larry and others (like Victor Stenger) argue that science gives us no reason to think these ideas are true. This is right. Science gives no reason to think that there is a God, contrary to the asseverations of many theologically inclined science writers and popular philosophers. However, neither does science give us any reason to think that only what science gives us reason to think should be thought. These are outside methodological naturalism and enter into the vast, crafty and occasionally surreal halls and dungeons of philosophy. You don’t need to enter those places of the mind. But I don’t see how you are justified in attacking those who do, so long as they don’t deny fact or logic.
I’ll end this with a quote from Cicero that I saw on Twitter, from Tim Dean:
“If the man lives who would belittle the study of philosophy, I quite fail to see what in the world he would see fit to praise.”
I don’t know if it is truly his saying, but I have to say I think it right.